Playing the long game

There are pitfalls to setting up an overseas campus but the grand ideas do translate into practice, says Paul Greatrix

May 5, 2011

Ministers and university presidents at the British Council's recent Going Global conference in Hong Kong talked in grand terms about the value of internationalisation.

It's true that the scale and range of international activity continues to grow. More universities have some form of international footprint, including at least 15 from the UK. While some offers come with money (New York University was paid handsomely to set up in Abu Dhabi), for most there is a massive investment, much work and many difficulties to overcome.

For institutions such as the University of Nottingham that have had international campuses for a while, it is seen as a "long game". Demonstrating commitment is hugely important to show that we are there for the long term, not merely pursuing opportunistic goals.

But enough of the high ideals; what of the realities? Building a campus on the other side of the world is an inherently risky business. International politics can have a profound impact and the sheer management challenge can be off-putting. There have been high-profile casualties, including, for example, the University of New South Wales' withdrawal from Singapore, and the consequences of failure for the institution's reputation may be profound. Other immediate problems include the failure of enormous efforts to be reflected in international league tables; significant strains on the resources needed for effective operational management; and possible financial exposure, including to international market variations that leave universities at risk of losses because of fluctuating exchange rates.

Governance across borders is also difficult. Fitting unusual models involving international partners and different approaches into traditional UK university governance structures is a complex business. The biggest challenges are ensuring commonality of systems and processes, and integrating international operations into everything, from strategic planning to student representation, from risk management to individual appraisals.

Staffing is among the most complex of all challenges. The difficulties include finding the right people, applying the highest standards to all appointments worldwide and balancing secondments with international and local recruitment; arranging visas; relocating entire families; schooling; and pay. Establishing a research culture takes time.

Meanwhile back in the UK, making internationalisation a reality must be part of everyone's job. This means establishing as norms the idea of international secondments, frequent Skype contact with counterparts, regular visits and the explicit inclusion of international matters in every aspect of business.

For undergraduates, the benefits of studying for a UK degree on a British campus in an entirely different national and cultural context can be immense, and it is attractive to employers. (From 2012, it is also likely to be cheaper in terms of headline fees and living costs.)

Cultural and operational matters make the reality somewhat different from the ideal, however. Balancing local policy with institutional norms - whether alcohol is permitted on campus, for example - may be challenging. Student expectations of professional services may vary, and attitudes towards key student support services, such as counselling and provision for disabled students, may also differ. Managing across time zones means early mornings and late evenings for many staff, using Skype and videoconferencing to help cut travel costs. In dealing with these issues, international universities are in the same position as any multinational organisation.

Building a campus overseas is an extraordinary achievement and testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of UK higher education. The fact that Nottingham has done this twice and that other UK institutions are now doing it too shows that it is possible to transform lofty rhetoric into reality.

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