It's a wide world

New UK Higher Education International Unit head Keith Sharp is enthusiastic about the sector's global expansion

December 3, 2009

Keith Sharp is unashamedly excited about his new job as head of the UK Higher Education International Unit, a role where he said "no two days are the same".

The unit, financed by the three UK higher education funding councils, the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland, Guild HE and Universities UK, provides universities with research and advice on international trends and represents the interests of the UK higher education sector in the global market.

Dr Sharp's work involves engaging with vice-chancellors across the country, as well as explaining the UK education system to principals of overseas universities - a task he jokingly referred to as "a bit like clarifying the rules of cricket".

"Where in the past international links were based on chance personal meetings at a conference, institutions are increasingly developing more strategic approaches, and need information about the countries and markets they are looking to operate in," said Dr Sharp. "The internationalisation of higher education is an increasingly important issue, economically and culturally."

The unit works closely with the British Council, and is currently developing a guide to the UK education system aimed at staff in universities abroad who may be interested in initiating partnerships with UK institutions.

Dr Sharp has worked in higher education for 20 years, and was dean and associate pro vice-chancellor at the University of Gloucestershire before taking up his current post. He said his sociology training had provided him with insight into the world he now works in.

"The internationalisation agenda is very much about the social experiences of students - I'm interested in the idea of what you could loftily call a 'global citizen', someone who is comfortable working alongside, and becoming friends with, others from across the globe."

For universities that spread their wings globally, he thinks there are both opportunities and risks.

"Part of our role involves working with colleagues in Universities UK to minimise risks by highlighting the unintended consequences that things like reviews of the visa system or changes to VAT can have on universities' international activities."

However, he remains positive about the development of internationalisation. "When this position came along I thought 'if I could write a job description for my dream job, this would be it'," he said.

"International work is the future - there could not be a better time to be doing my job."

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