The real bottom line

Transnational initiatives pay dividends far greater than a share of the overseas student market, Paul Greatrix insists

August 2, 2012

The British Council has predicted that most universities in the West - with the exception of some in Australia - will recruit markedly fewer international students in the years ahead than they have done in the past decade.

Its recent report, The Shape of Things to Come, recommends that universities set up more overseas branch campuses and institutional partnerships rather than relying on attracting students to the UK.

The University of Nottingham has many years of experience in this area. We set up international campuses in Malaysia in 2000, and then in 2004 became the first institution to establish a Sino-foreign university in China.

In May, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, invited universities and banks to a round-table meeting to talk about establishing international branch campuses. This was seen, by some at least, to be a response to the impact of visa controls on international student recruitment to the UK. It was also suggested, rather cynically, that it was a good way for cash-strapped universities to make money in the wake of overseas student recruitment problems arising from the government's immigration policy.

Perhaps the agenda was not this simplistic. I would certainly hope not. Establishing an overseas campus is not straightforward. Challenges range from building the infrastructure to restructuring institutional and local governance. Legal issues, financial arrangements and developing local management can take time and significant effort, as can coming to terms with an entirely new academic, political and cultural framework.

Universities operating overseas soon discover they have to undertake student recruitment in an entirely new context, and relationships with research-grant-awarding bodies must be built from scratch - along with the capacity to influence government. As if that weren't enough, entirely different approaches are required when providing student support and understanding student engagement, and there is a very short window for videoconferencing between the home institution and overseas campuses owing to time differences.

But the efforts really do bring rewards - not financially (which is where I think the minister perhaps has it wrong) - but in terms of the benefits of being a truly multi-campus, multinational university.

We have built close relationships based on trust and taken the long-term view with our partners that it is in both our interests to focus on the quality of the Nottingham brand.

Major new opportunities in teaching, student exchanges and research collaboration have hugely enriched Nottingham's environment and ethos; our campuses in Asia confer great benefits in terms of the student experience, and this can be equally transformative for students from the UK who spend time studying in China and Malaysia.

Transnational education offers a route to international markets without falling foul of visa restrictions; but to do it well requires serious long-term investment.

In interesting new ways, overseas campuses could widen participation for UK students seeking different, more cost-effective ways to study for high-quality British degrees. Experience of studying overseas may also boost graduates' employability, while institutions have the chance to rebut criticisms of "insularity" levelled at the UK sector in an increasingly international higher education marketplace.

To leverage the full benefit of an international campus, though, an institution must have a strategy that goes beyond thinking about money. The management input required is high, and there are inevitably "opportunity costs".

The investment is substantial, but it is worth it for a university committed to an international vision that goes beyond generating income from overseas student fees. In the long term, the institution can genuinely claim to be comprehensively international, and staff and students will benefit in every dimension of their work.

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