Victoria values: reign abroad but protect one's reputation

The University of Buckingham flies the UK flag in Uganda. David Matthews reports from Kampala

September 22, 2011

Credit: David Matthews
Expansion plans: Victoria's vice-chancellor says that the institution's long-term aims are to enrol up to 15,000 students

With the fees faced by international students seeking UK degrees rising every year, the newly opened Victoria University in Kampala, Uganda believes it has spotted a gap in the market.

At Victoria, the University of Buckingham, like many other UK universities in outposts around the world, is offering its degrees to foreign students on their own doorstep. Buckingham has said that it will charge Ugandan students less than a fifth of what they would pay to do the same courses in the UK.

With demand for higher education in the African country outstripping supply, the Victoria model is one the British government wants other UK universities to copy - but the undertaking carries with it the potential to damage Buckingham's reputation if standards are seen to slip.

Buckingham already has similar arrangements with institutions in Singapore and Sarajevo, while other UK universities have foreign campuses in places ranging from Dubai to China, but East Africa represents new ground.

Martin O'Hara, vice-chancellor of Victoria and former vice-rector of the National University of Rwanda, told Times Higher Education that the new private institution would "provide what is needed in the public sector", namely "high quality at a good price".

Victoria is expecting to enrol 200-300 students on undergraduate courses in the coming academic year.

Buckingham will offer BScs in business and management, business and management with information systems, accounting and financial management, and computing, while Victoria is accrediting bachelor's degrees in nursing and in science in public health.

The Buckingham degrees will normally be priced at US$7,000 (£4,423) a year, although for those enrolling in the first year, Victoria is offering a 50 per cent discount.

Five years from now, Victoria aims to have 4,000 students on its books, Professor O'Hara said, adding that the institution has long-term plans to expand this figure to between 12,000 and 15,000, with additional courses potentially including medicine.

Quality controls

However, there are risks involved in such arrangements. In light of recent criticisms of the University of Wales by the Quality Assurance Agency for "serious shortcomings" over its links with institutions in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, UK universities will be well aware of the dangers of overseas validation.

Frances Robinson, director of international programmes at Buckingham, said that the two universities' syllabuses were "almost identical", except for the introduction of "African themes" at Victoria.

Victoria's teaching staff will have to be of the same standard as those in the UK, she said, and most will be expatriates, at least initially.

As for examinations, "it looks extremely likely that we will use the same external examiners as we use in Buckingham", she added. At Victoria's opening ceremony in Kampala on 10 September, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham, told assembled dignitaries from the UK and Uganda that "if that means a significant failure rate, then so be it".

His remark was met with muted laughter.

The risk to Buckingham is reputational rather than financial, because the initial $20 million capital investment in Victoria was furnished by Edulink (which paid THE's expenses during the trip), a company based in Dubai.

Edulink, which helped set up Middlesex University's Dubai campus, said that the project is for the "long term" and the priority is academic excellence, rather than profit.

Buckingham will take a cut of Victoria's tuition fees, but declined to reveal how much.

"We do not do this for money," Professor Kealey said. "Our business model is that it would be quite nice to have a partner in Africa, a partner in Asia and a partner in America."

But he is not comfortable with Victoria's aspiration to grow to accommodate more than 12,000 students.

"The problem with growth would be a sense that we couldn't monitor it properly," he said.

If Buckingham wants to pull out of the partnership it can do so, but it would have to wait for Victoria to find another UK university to accredit the degrees, he added.

Teesside University and the representative group Scottish Colleges are also in negotiations to validate engineering degrees and other qualifications at the institution.

However, there are other sensitivities for would-be partners to consider. For example, in a country where homosexual acts are illegal, Professor Kealey said that it would be "inappropriate" to send gay staff there "because we would be encouraging people to break the law".

Prospective students at the opening ceremony said that the UK degrees on offer were a big draw, and many said that the alternative for them was to study abroad.

Whether Buckingham's reputation is enhanced or diminished by the venture now depends on the education these students receive over the next three years.

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