University chiefs are set to be told to look westwards to recruit international students and forge research collaborations. Not to the US or Canada, but to Mexico, writes Anthea Lipsett.
This will be the message from Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University and chair of Universities UK's international committee, in a briefing note to fellow vice-chancellors on the potential for links with Mexico. The country is even being talked about as the "new India" by university heads who scour the globe for opportunities in the higher education market.
Professor Boucher said: "There are opportunities for collaboration in terms of engagement and information exchange, and maybe exchange of data and postgraduate students."
He warned that UK universities could not sit back and expect students to flock to them. "Universities need to find ways of putting something back.
It could be in the form of visits by faculty to give talks and workshops and so on."
Professor Boucher was part of a delegation of vice-chancellors who went to Mexico to promote UK higher education earlier this year.
David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, which has about 60 Mexican students, said: "It could be the new India in terms of having a highly skilled population, mostly in work, operating in a knowledge economy. They want to continue to upskill their higher education workforce, and there are real opportunities for the UK there."
Professor Eastwood said that there were also opportunities for research collaborations, coordinated PhD programmes and student exchanges. But he said that it would be wrong to say that this was an easy market in which to operate.
"The old purchaser-provider model is something that doesn't work as well as it did. They are looking for partnerships and bilateral collaborations and, increasingly, cost sharing."
Paul Curran, pro vice-chancellor for research of Southampton University and soon to be vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said: "Mexican academic staff have to go abroad to do PhDs, and the European Union is looking more attractive than the US because it's more open.
The UK's enterprise culture was also appealing, he said.
Mexico has a number of world-class medical institutes that would open the possibility of research links.
Professor Curran said that Monterrey Tech University put most UK institutions in the shade in terms of attention to the way in which education is delivered. "There are things to be learnt from Mexico," he said.
The national university in Mexico City has 200,000 students. "They can have a big department of philosophy and not bat an eyelid," Professor Curran said.