True hearts, open minds

Successful overseas ventures must stick to core values while adapting to local cultures and regulation, says Christine Ennew

October 28, 2010

Credit: Liam Derbyshire

For more than two decades, UK providers have been offering their programmes abroad, serving international markets that might otherwise not have had the opportunity to access a UK-style education. The concept of establishing campuses overseas dates back almost as far. But institutional mobility has proved much harder to deliver than programme mobility, whether for individual universities or for consortia, and thus has grown more slowly.

The British University of Thailand foundered with the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98. The University of Warwick toyed with the idea of a campus in Singapore; the University of New South Wales went a stage further but subsequently withdrew.

There have, however, been clear successes - most notably the University of Nottingham (which this year celebrates a decade in Malaysia and which was the first foreign joint venture in China), the University of Liverpool (in China), Middlesex University (Dubai and Mauritius) and the University of Bolton (United Arab Emirates). And UK-based consortia initiatives have made progress through the British University in Dubai and the British University in Egypt.

Of course, it is not just UK universities venturing overseas; institutions from Australia, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, the US and many other countries are active as well. There is also growing evidence of increased institutional mobility at the secondary level, led initially by Dulwich College, with recent examples including Repton School, Epsom College, Wellington College and Marlborough College.

The challenges, both strategic and operational, are real. There is much rhetoric around the benefits of overseas ventures for diversifying income streams, but the reality is that such projects are expensive and depend on genuine cross-institutional support and a willingness to commit significant resources, both financial and human.

Operationally, success depends on the ability to mobilise organisational systems, processes, policies and people to operate in an unfamiliar environment. Strategically, the challenge is to ensure that what is being offered meets an identified market need and builds appropriately on institutional strengths.

To succeed at a strategic level, an overseas venture must remain true to core educational values. These values have to be reflected not just in the content of what is taught but also in the style of teaching, the facilities and the wider student experience offered.

What makes international delivery of educational programmes, and specifically overseas campuses, attractive is the opportunity to give students a credible UK educational experience in a different host nation. But effective mobility - whether of programmes or institutions - requires at least some adaptation to local legal and cultural contexts while staying true to core values.

The topics that we address in our curricula, the approach that we seek to adopt - engaging with students to encourage independent and critical thinking - and the environments that we create for teaching and learning are fundamental to the experience that we offer. In these there must be equivalence across locations.

But we can be flexible when it comes to the social side of life on campus, the ways in which we market our programmes and the ways in which we engage with local cultures and regulations.

International business demonstrates that it is possible to protect core values while adapting to local circumstances; education needs to work towards similar goals.

But it would be unwise simply to try to create a UK island of education in a foreign sea; protecting core values must not and should not prevent UK institutions reaching out to the communities that host them. We can all benefit from sharing good practice, and we should not assume that this will always be a one-way process. It would be arrogant in the extreme (and counter to the values described above) to assume that we cannot learn from others. Internationalisation of education should be about learning as well as teaching.

Sharing the experience and expertise that has been developed in the UK education sector need not lead to competitive disadvantage. Working and sharing with partners in a host nation is part of our responsibility to the longer-term success of international education.

Christine Ennew is pro vice-chancellor, University of Nottingham. She will be speaking at the Brand UK: Why British Schools and Universities Should Set Up Abroad conference, held in association with Times Higher Education, at Wellington College, Berkshire, on 5 November.

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