Foreign universities attracted to the UK by higher tuition fees could partner with local institutions to offer degrees in the country, according to a former head of Universities UK.
The development, which would be a reversal of the long-standing arrangements that have seen UK institutions export their activities overseas, has been forecast by Sir Drummond Bone, UUK president from 2005 to 2007 and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool from 2002 to 2008.
Sir Drummond, who is now chairman of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and an adviser to Laureate International Universities, was speaking ahead of a lecture on "The idea of the international university" at City University London on 5 May.
In his lecture, which follows the launch of the World Cities World Class University Network (see box), he will argue against any single definition of "a global university".
Sir Drummond highlighted a distinction between "universities that have a global brand and are recognisable globally" even though they may not necessarily devote much work to internationalisation and those universities that "operate globally".
In the latter category, he pointed to the variety of international models.
These include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's strategy of offering online open access to lectures, the traditional branch campus model, and New York University's ambition to create a series of overseas "portals" offering a "circulatory system", which allows students to study for different semesters in different locations worldwide.
He also cited foreign-owned or part-owned institutions such as the University of Liverpool's joint venture with Xi'an Jiaotong University in China; and distance learning in various forms, such as those operated by The Open University and the University of London's external programme.
Asked how internationalisation might be different for UK universities five years from now, Sir Drummond said: "I suspect we will find more overseas universities wanting to work with UK universities in the UK."
He added that for overseas institutions, the fee structure in the UK - where the tuition fee cap for home students is set to treble to £9,000 in 2012 - is "now beginning to look a bit more attractive".
Such partnerships would offer UK degrees, he suggested, which remain "very exportable", partly thanks to the credibility supplied by the Quality Assurance Agency.
On the likelihood of such links developing, he said: "I think there are a number of people talking to overseas providers about new arrangements."
These arrangements could be part of wider, mutually beneficial working relationships, said Sir Drummond, who will become master of Balliol College, Oxford, in October.
He gave the example of "an Australian university and a UK university that want to run something together in India, but as part of that agreement there is an Australian presence in the UK, and a UK presence in Australia".
He also observed that private providers - both for-profit and not-for-profit - had played a key role in increasing capacity across the world.
"For those countries where access is not going to come any other way, (private provision) is a positive thing," he said.
"In other countries, the key thing is quality control and regulation - then it can be a positive thing."
A capital idea: Big-city universities link up
City University London is among the founder members of the World Cities World Class University Network (WC2 University Network), which aims to "build closer links between universities, local governments and business communities".
Sir Drummond Bone said the group was an interesting development in the internationalisation of higher education, adding to existing networks such as Universitas 21 and the Worldwide Universities Network.
Other members include Seoul National University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the University of Sao Paulo, the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (Mexico City), the Technical University of Berlin and St Petersburg State Polytechnical University.
Each of the founder members will bring together local expertise in areas such as transport, global health, sustainability, business and creative industries.