'Borderless education' must become the new norm for UK universities

All UK universities should be reviewing and building upon their existing transnational education strategies, says Paul Feldman

February 27, 2017
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It was recently reported that the University of Paris Seine has been inviting British higher education institutions to be part of its International Campus, which opened its first building last year. The likely reason? Brexit. Should we be surprised? Not really. 

Last month, Ucas – the organisation that processes UK university applications – released its official 2016-17 European Union application figures, showing that EU student applications to the UK were down by 7 per cent. This reinforces the findings of a Higher Education Policy Institute report, which warned that a tougher stance towards overseas students could cost the UK as much as £2 billion a year. Both the indicators mentioned show the UK’s decision to leave the EU is already having an impact on the higher education sector, and given current visa restrictions, it’s a worrying time for UK universities. 

While the government is committed, as of June 2015, to increasing education exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020, it would be wise for all British universities to consider how they can best ensure they remain globally competitive and open to the world. The Hepi report predicted that as many as 20,000 potential students could be put off studying in the UK as a result of visa restrictions, so it’s more important than ever that universities take steps to overcome these challenges. 

Against this backdrop, it’s imperative that borderless education becomes the new norm. We cannot allow current restrictions and political decisions to blight the reputation and success of the UK higher education system. All over the world, technology enables communication to continue despite geographical barriers.

Once upon a time, presenting a Mooc (massive, open online course) in the UK virtually to students in China would have seemed revolutionary – and now this is common place. If UK universities are to remain competitive, utilising technology to enable cross-border learning will be crucial. 

International students not only bring a huge economic benefit to the UK but also fresh talent, ideas and skills. If we’re to continue to attract the brightest minds internationally to study at our universities, we need to find ways to facilitate this. And while opening branch campuses overseas may be too ambitious for all UK universities to achieve quickly, there are certainly other ways to ensure they continue to have a global presence and attract international students to their institutions. 

As a minimum, all UK universities should be reviewing and building upon their existing transnational education (TNE) strategies – whether that’s identifying the countries that would benefit most from their expertise, or agreeing the balance of physical courses versus distance courses available.

Transnational education will be one of the main ways for British institutions to remain at the forefront of higher education and shed the growing "difficult and unattractive" perception that international students are forming of them. As we are all aware, TNE has been growing rapidly in the UK, with one report suggesting that the UK saw a staggering 13.4 per cent growth in UK HE transnational education between 2012-13 and 2014-15. Moreover, the UK's offshore activity is growing at more than five times the rate of the number of international students coming to the UK to study.

If this trend is to continue, technology will be at the centre of its success. 

We must urge all universities to experiment and explore the opportunities that available technology affords them. As another recent Hepi report states, technology is benefiting universities and students through better teaching and learning, improved retention rates and lower costs. We have seen significant results in Australia and the US, and we must follow suit to remain competitive and continue to attract and facilitate overseas students studying at UK universities – whether that is virtually or physically.

 Paul Feldman is chief executive of the educational technology charity Jisc. 

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