Overseas adventures

January 22, 1999

Roger Brown gives ample proof that hindsight is a wonderful thing ("Scrutinise those overseas links", THES, January 1). His own standpoint is impregnable, too, since he was not at the helm of Southampton Institute when the fateful overseas ventures were begun.

He intimates that problems are most likely to occur when these ventures are in countries where the everyday language is not English. In this supposition, he is correct. But then, any half-decent commercial company that had it in mind to establish an overseas base, create an overseas partnership, establish an overseas marketing campaign or whatever would have taken great care to identify all the "inhibiting factors", such as language and culture, as well as the costs associated with the measures needed to overcome them.

By the same token, such UK institutions must have recognised they were embarking on something long term and not just for Christmas. For the most part, this meant a minimum of three years, in addition to any "lead-in" time. That fact alone should have sharpened the determination of those who promulgated the ventures in the first place to produce realistic business plans, neither overestimating income (by being unduly optimistic about student numbers) nor underestimating expenditure (by ignoring the complexity of the exercise).

As someone who has seen at first hand the workings of an overseas venture - some may mischievously call them "adventures" - I can well appreciate the financial penalties that have befallen the UK institutions that initiated them.

And yet there is a need to reappraise and not merely "ditch", to learn from the past and not merely "rubbish" it. Academic institutions in the UK still appear to have a high reputation abroad and there may be much to gain from partnerships that are modest in scope and thoroughly costed.

The National Audit Office has every right to scrutinise all aspects of public expenditure, of course, but let us identify the good things that flow from these ventures as well as the bad.

Byron Grainger-Jones, Instituto Maritimo Internacional, University of Alicante, Spain

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