Midlands giant visits Windy City to learn from Midwest peers

The University of Birmingham sent senior administrators to two US institutions for a “transatlantic summit” as part of its preparations for the UK’s more market-oriented funding regime.

May 21, 2011

Birmingham dispatched its registrar and directors of external affairs, estates, human resources, finance, IT and student experience to meet their counterparts at the University of Chicago and Chicago-based Northwestern University.

Birmingham described the event as a “transatlantic summit” that focused on “effective higher education management”.

The visit was part of a broader higher education relationship forged between Birmingham and Chicago. For example, Birmingham has held a joint neuroscience symposium organised with Chicago partners and has hosted Robert Zimmer, the University of Chicago’s president.

Tracey Lancaster, Birmingham’s director of external affairs, said of the visit: “One issue we did talk about a lot was the way in which Chicago and Northwestern manage their financial-aid packages for students.

“They have highly sophisticated processes to assess the specific financial needs of students from diverse backgrounds. That is a much higher level of sophistication than we have in the UK at the moment – and probably ever will.”

However, understanding how the Chicago system operates and its best practices would help, she added.

Ms Lancaster said the other issues discussed included “financial management, how you can develop your staff [and] various ways of enhancing the student experience”.

She added: “The UK at the moment is particularly focused on the challenges of 2012 [when the tuition-fee cap for home undergraduates will rise to £9,000 a year]. Many of the issues we were discussing are priorities for all three institutions.”

Despite the commonalities, Chicago and Northwestern, both private institutions, are far richer than Birmingham, with endowment funds worth about $6 billion (£3.7 billion) each.

That gives the US universities the security to follow a “20- to 30-year plan”, Ms Lancaster said. Although Birmingham is in a “very stable financial position…we haven’t got that freedom a private institution in the US has to almost buy itself out of trouble”.

Ms Lancaster said that Birmingham and its Chicago partners were “scoping out the ways in which the relationship could work” and that there were “lots of different ways this relationship can benefit” all parties.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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