Together we can take on the world

April 13, 2007

Signing commercial deals to boost foreign student levels is a vital partnership, not a cash-led privatisation, says Steve Smith

Universities stand accused of privatising English language provision. Exeter is one of three institutions of higher education (so far) to sign deals with Into University Partnerships to recruit more international students. These decisions have proved controversial in some quarters, prompting the University and College Union to launch an anti-privatisation campaign. Our new project isn't privatisation but a joint-venture partnership in which Exeter has a 50 per cent stake. There is no "handing over" of assets from the public to the private sector.

Like a lot of other UK universities, we have been wrestling with the challenge of recruiting more international students. Yes, the extra income is important; but so is giving all of our students the chance to study in a more multicultural environment. We have been doing all of the usual things - more recruitment of staff, more international scholarships and more "getting out more". But we needed a big idea to move ahead significantly.

Stepping into the ring at this point was Into University Partnerships, which offered something different. Its model is to bring students to the UK for a period of language and academic preparation before they apply for places on degree courses. This approach maintains the quality mark of UK higher education by providing high levels of personal support and world-class facilities. Some £35 million will be invested in purpose-built study facilities and accommodation on our Streatham Campus - more than the university could manage on its own.

True to the spirit of a partnership, Into and Exeter share any surplus earned from the pre-degree operations on a 50:50 basis, our portion being invested for the experience of everyone studying at the university. Of course, once students are on programme we receive all of the fee. But progression isn't automatic, and academic control remains with the university; in fact, quality control of programmes will be run by the senate in exactly the same way as it is for any other course. The Quality Assurance Agency has also been consulted and is happy with our quality assurance arrangements.

Existing staff in our English Language Centre transferred across to working for the new partnership under the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment regulations, which preserve their terms and conditions with their new employer. In other words, their pay and pension arrangements remain intact.

The context to our decision is the increasing competition for international students between universities around the world. There are more than 300,000 international students studying in the UK, generating £2.4 billion and nearly 22,000 jobs for UK plc. Impressive figures you might think; but the country's 11 per cent share of this important market is under threat.

Places such as Australia, France, Japan and New Zealand are taking ever greater portions of the international students market. An increasing number of European universities are now offering degrees taught in English. UK universities are competing ever harder among themselves for the available pool of students.

To succeed in this brave new world will increasingly require new approaches. The greatest challenge facing universities is not the quality of what they're offering, but in generating the marketing "oomph" necessary to succeed in big competitive marketplaces. As with most areas of endeavour, there is a close link between success and "who shouts loudest".

Given that universities acting on their own aren't set up to run international marketing networks, it makes some kind of partnership with the private sector increasingly necessary.

Into has an emerging track record of success. Its first partnership at the University of East Anglia (Exeter was the second, closely followed by Newcastle University) is on target and has created 60 new jobs.

International student enrolments on pre-university programmes are up to 689 in year one from 250 the year before. Students now come from 45 countries compared with 24 previously. The partnership has also resulted in an improved system of support, including multilingual counsellors and higher levels of student success and satisfaction. More one-to-one support will help to address any value-for-money concerns that international students might have.

Given increasing competition, innovation is necessary to protect and enhance the UK's position as a leading study destination. International students are becoming more sophisticated in their choices, and we must always remember that study abroad represents a huge investment for each one and quite often their families, too.

The kind of approach being pioneered at UEA, Exeter and Newcastle has had its critics. But it's clear that maintaining the status quo is not an option if we want to go forward. Universities and the private sector can bring different skills to the table and together provide a stronger product without the need for one being dominant. This isn't privatisation but partnership. The Into University Partnerships are creating new jobs, new investment and bringing new students to the UK. That surely has to be good for the sector.

Steve Smith is vice-chancellor of Exeter University.

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