Reflecting on how he came to be vice-chancellor of Oman’s first private university, Barry Winn said that he had always been uncomfortable with UK higher education’s approach to internationalisation.
As deputy vice-chancellor (academic) of the University of Bradford, Professor Winn said that he had been struck by how many institutions’ overseas activities had been “all about…how many international students can we get in”.
In contrast, Professor Winn said, he had always believed in the value of British staff and students getting international experience themselves; so, when the opportunity to lead Sohar University came up last April, he could hardly say “no”.
“Too many universities in the UK have a very old colonial approach, which is ‘we know best, you can have [our model], take it or leave it’,” Professor Winn told Times Higher Education while attending this month’s THE MENA Universities Summit. “I think the value of working internationally is that you import ideas and business models and understanding from other parts of the world, and you bring it back in so British graduates get the benefit as well.
“I had been banging on about that, and I suddenly had a chance in my life to do something different.”
Across the Gulf, countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have been inviting international universities to set up branch campuses in order to drive forward the development of their higher education sectors.
Oman has a different approach: there is one public institution, Sultan Qaboos University, and a growing group of private providers, albeit with students on government scholarships.
Highlighting the amount of government subsidy required by many branch campuses and the low student numbers that some attract, Professor Winn argued that Oman’s home-grown approach would prove more sustainable in the long term as the Gulf states moved away from an oil-based economy.
“The Omanis who have invested in our university are not going anywhere; the University of Sohar will be in Sohar,” Professor Winn said. “I think some of the international providers are a short- or medium-term project where they can be here for now, but in the longer term, countries have to build their own capability.”
This is not to say that Oman is taking an isolationist approach. Teaching is done in English at Sohar, which is affiliated to the University of Queensland in Australia. Professor Winn is using his UK background to build collaborations with UK institutions, such as an advanced manufacturing project with the University of Sheffield.
And many of Sohar’s academics are from around the world, helping the institution, which was established in 2001, to expand at a rate of 500 students a year – it now has more than 6,500.
Strikingly, overall 80 per cent of Sohar’s students are women. Even in engineering, a traditionally male dominated subject, they make up 50 per cent of the cohort, although Professor Winn acknowledged that it was harder to get them into the job market.
This is just one cultural difference that he has had to adapt to in the region, along with a different attitude to freedom of speech.
As a vice-chancellor, Professor Winn said, he was “not in the country to express any political view”. But, he went on, this did not mean that there was not academic freedom.
“Academic freedom, I think, is [that] if you’re an economist, you’re allowed to comment on the economy…without fear,” Professor Winn said. “Within our academic disciplines…people are free to express their views.”