Setting up a university campus abroad is a risk that could prove a costly embarrassment, but if successful it will pay dividends for decades, a conference has heard.
Michael Hoey, pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation at the University of Liverpool, told delegates at a conference held at Wellington College in Berkshire last week that they should consider investing in setting up abroad despite the crisis in university funding.
His comments came ahead of a visit to India this week by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and a group of UK vice-chancellors for a higher education summit in Delhi.
The Wellington conference heard that India will require 60 million additional university places in the next 10 years, but that setting up shop abroad was not risk free.
"The gamble that you are taking at the early stages is considerable," Professor Hoey said. "The most obvious risk is that you devote a great deal of staff time, effort and investment and get it wrong. You're also taking a reputational risk.
"It's the other side of the coin to the huge reputational gain if it pays off. The financial gains could be real, but it's a genuine gamble on which you may lose as well as win."
Speaking at the conference, titled Brand UK: Why British Schools and Universities Should Set Up Abroad, Professor Hoey said that British universities could not continue to rely on the flow of international students into the UK.
He said several factors would affect student numbers in the future, including improvements in the quality of higher education elsewhere, the geographical or cultural "inconvenience" of the UK and more costly air travel.
Other countries might take steps to prevent outward migration, and there was growing competition from courses delivered in English in mainland Europe, he added.
"In most areas of the world now, there are either universities that are in the world top 100 or there are universities working very hard to get there," Professor Hoey said.
"There will be a point at which the vast migration of students will become financially impossible. We have to plan for that day. This is the case for setting up abroad."
Last week, Home Secretary Theresa May unveiled plans for new restrictions on foreign students accessing courses below the degree level in the UK, prompting fears that the flow of students progressing to university would be affected.
Nick Baird, director general for Europe and globalisation at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told the conference that the UK could continue to play a key role in meeting global demand, only from overseas.
"India is well aware that it cannot achieve (the target for 60 million new university places) alone. Our universities would only need to be engaged in a proportion of that in order to generate much-needed income," he said.
Christine Ennew, pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation at the University of Nottingham, which has campuses in Malaysia and China (see box), said: "I think we can approach these difficult times in one of two ways. One is to draw in to our hearths and weather the storm; the other is to say that crisis can become an opportunity. Maybe what we should be doing is looking to the opportunities."
Also speaking at the conference, the Duke of York accused the UK Border Agency of inefficiency in the processing of student visas.
"Every country I go to I get complaints about the visa regime," he said. "The Border Agency simply fails to have the right number of people to cope with demand."
NOTTINGHAM INVITED TO EXPAND PROVISION IN CHINA
The University of Nottingham has been asked to open a second campus in China.
The invitation from the Shanghai government was announced this week during a visit to China by Prime Minister David Cameron, who led a delegation that included Nottingham vice-chancellor David Greenaway.
Christine Ennew, pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation at Nottingham, said a site had been identified and funding offered for its construction. She said the success of Nottingham's first China campus, at Ningbo, had prompted the government to suggest a second venture.
Although Nottingham has not yet committed, Professor Ennew said the invitation "aligns with our desire to grow in-country provision of taught programmes and to expand research activity in China".
Michael Gove, the UK education secretary, said the government would offer its "strongest support" to the project.