Going global

by Apr 23, 2012 No Comments

As internationalisation in higher education grows, Holyrood examines how the market is developing

The British university has always transcended national boundaries. And over the last two decades higher education institutions have flourished through fostering global partnerships.

Scottish universities have established a flurry of overseas campuses in places like Dubai, India and China. A recent British Council investigation into the global higher education market revealed just how lucrative the sector is for UK institutions. The report predicts that the UK will take a bigger share of growth in overseas students than the US, with almost 30,000 enrolments per year by 2020.

Professor Steve Hillier, Vice Principal International at the University of Edinburgh, argues that his institution has had a global focus since the 16th century. “But to answer your question honestly,” he adds, “it wasn’t until 2007 that we actually had a formal internationalisation strategy.”

Indeed it was only this year that Foreign Secretary William Hague launched a government service to encourage universities to expand internationally, the first time the Foreign Office has become directly involved in the expansion of UK higher education. Such intervention is a key indicator of how vital pursuing a global education outlook and developing transnational education (TNE) is seen to be. But the motivation that fuels an institution’s internationalisation strategy is varied and complex.

Professor Dame Joan Stringer, Principal of Edinburgh Napier University, says: “I think it is fairly clear that the desire or need to secure new and additional income streams is an important factor for institutions in the UK that are under pressure from changes in public funding arrangements and for whom international activities are an obvious potential source of future growth.”

Stringer also points to the lure of securing an institution’s international business in an attractive overseas market. Hillier says Edinburgh University has an “embassy” in China – a booming global economy – to project the “appropriate image” of the institution, engage locally with the government and, to a certain extent, attract students. A globalised university brings with it the prestige of being – and being seen to be – an international player, and the intangible reputational benefits that brings clearly raises the University’s international standing, says Stringer.

“The growth of our transnational activity has also helped to boost demand from overseas students to study at our campuses in Edinburgh.” In material terms, the tuition fees charged to overseas students bring in significant amounts of cash – although the gap between international and home students has narrowed somewhat after tuition fees were capped at £9,000. From August this year, overseas students at Edinburgh University pay £12,650 a year for an arts or humanities degree, while science-based degrees cost nearly £17,000.

Research collaboration is also a crucial benefit of internationalisation. For Hillier, one of the premises of the university’s strategy is “to make sure that the staff here are of the highest calibre in terms of the research and the teaching they provide and the experience they receive as staff”. Hillier is very keen to emphasise just how important Edinburgh is as a research institution. “Everything we do is geared towards advancing the quality and impact of our research,” he says. “The line we take is that the University of Edinburgh is a global university that just happens to be in Scotland.”

It would not be fair to assume universities’ motivations are purely financial. Exchange schemes like the EU Erasmus programme supported by the British Council, which allows students to study for a year in Europe, encourage the mobility of undergraduates. So what is to be gained by having transnational students? For foreign language students, exposure to the country of origin is crucial for a deeper understanding of the culture. Over and above that, we live in an increasingly globalised world. A year overseas can boost credentials on CVs, stimulate cultural awareness and create international opportunities for students.

But what about the internationalisation of a domestic campus? At Edinburgh University, 8,500 students out of 29,000 are from outside the UK. “Chinese students are a very strong part of our community, as are other nationalities,” says Hillier. “They internationalise the community for the learner as well as being here for their own benefits. It makes it easier for colleagues at the university to engage with China and its institutions. For research, for cultural exchange, for bilateral internships of administrators as well as academics.”

Undoubtedly, a diverse student body can enrich the intellectual environment for learners and staff members. But Professor Seamus McDaid, Principal of the University of the West of Scotland, says there are significant challenges to keeping up with the pace of globalisation. “For this university, because of the nature of part of what we do, we’re very committed to widening participation,” he says. “It makes it difficult for many of our students to travel and get international aspects into their studies. But we do encourage that.”

This month, the British Council held its annual Going Global conference where delegates discussed issues around the internationalisation of higher education. One Spanish academic, Maria Luisa Sierra Huedo, from San Jorge University in Spain, pointed out in her submission that there is heavy focus on mobility programmes like Erasmus. However, experimenting with on-site internationalisation is another way to reap the benefits of diversity without having to leave campus. The theory of “Internationalisation at Home” was developed by Swedish academic Bengt Nilsson. “[If] we’re just thinking of internationalising our campus with study abroad then we’re not giving the right education to the other 90 per cent of the campus who are just staying home,” said Huedo.

“There are many things that can be done on your campus. You can try to incorporate diversity and multiculturalism on your campus. Look around at where your campus is located, where your university is located, and look around at what kind of population is there and try to incorporate not very popular languages. If you have a huge population of Romanians around you, try to incorporate that language in the university but also try to incorporate what they do in their communities in your campus. I also think the use of technologies is very important here and we need to maximise those resources. The new methodologies for getting connected with those around the world is another thing.”

However, there is also wider motivation at work, says Stringer. She points to the “important contribution” Edinburgh Napier has made in countries where it operates. “In India, for example, only 12 per cent of high school graduates go on to college,” she says. “Private sector jobs go vacant due to a lack of a quality workforce. Degrees awarded by universities, business people tell me, do not in many cases meet industry’s needs. Corporations complain about unemployable graduates. In Hong Kong, although a very different environment in many respects, I hear some of the same concerns – that they are not impressed by the domestic graduate product, that there is too much learning by rote, students are not being taught to think, analyse and problem solve.”

The challenges of operating in such a rapidly expanding market are multiple. “There have been some well-documented failures in the transnational education market, in most cases due to poor due diligence or inadequate market research, or the failure of a partner,” says Stringer. Ambitious Scottish universities have leapt on the bandwagon of opening fully fledged campuses overseas. Heriot-Watt University, which already has a £35m campus in Dubai, is set to open a second in Malaysia. Edinburgh Napier is the biggest UK provider of higher education in Hong Kong. Meanwhile Glasgow Caledonian has opened a campus in London to help it to attract international postgraduate students, and a nursing college in Bangladesh.

The UK Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has embarked on “country audits” in places like Singapore and India, examining issues like local curriculum requirements. “But there may be a question as to whether the QAA can really keep up with the proliferation of TNE,” says Stringer. “It is all very complex and as prospective students increasingly have the opportunity to shop around for TNE these issues of quality, consistency and comparability are in danger of becoming ever more of a challenge. Indeed the rate of growth in demand for transnational education itself poses a challenge. Some of the models through which TNE is currently delivered are limited in their capacity to keep up with demand and universities are increasingly looking at more scalable alternatives.”

It is also still unclear how the new visa regime will affect enrolments. In February UCAS reported a 13 per cent increase in undergraduate applications from non-EU countries. But only time will tell whether successful applicants manage to secure their visas in time for the academic year. However, the future is bright and fiercely competitive, says Professor Stringer. “It has been argued that not all players are competing to provide the same kind of service, and to an extent that is true, but it may not always be true,” she predicts. “Institutions underestimate competition from the commercial sector at their peril, and consumers of transnational education will increasingly benefit from the choices such new providers will offer.”

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