Scotland has “one of the strongest higher education systems in the world” – that was the claim made by a press release from Universities Scotland following the publication of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. With the University of Dundee climbing back into the top 200, Scotland again has five universities considered to be among a global elite of HE institutions – more per head of population than any other nation in the world.
A series of recent reports has confirmed the global status of Scottish universities, and the importance of that international reputation to the HE sector and the wider Scottish economy. A study commissioned by Universities Scotland reported that the export value of universities’ work was £1.3bn, with Scotland’s skilled workforce – to which universities make a significant contribution – playing a motivating factor in almost half of all foreign direct investment projects. International students contribute roughly £140m in fees to university budgets each year – a significant amount at a time of constrained public finances, particularly given that international recruitment is uncapped, and therefore a potential source of growth. Another report from Universities Scotland highlighted the cultural benefits of international students coming to Scotland to study. Multicultural campuses result in a more global outlook for Scottish graduates, improving their prospects of working overseas and enhancing their earnings.
The benefits of international collaboration and attracting students from overseas are therefore significant. However, another recent report from the British Council, while endorsing the positive attributes of Scottish universities, has claimed that some of these might not be getting through in the global HE marketplace. According to Dr Neil Kemp, one of the authors of the report, Scottish universities’ distinctive identity is being subsumed within the UK-wide identity of the HE sector.
That is not a bad thing in itself; UK universities have an excellent profile overseas and Scotland benefits from that. Kemp tells Holyrood that the message he got when speaking to representatives of all of Scotland’s universities was that “they like the idea of being within the UK brand, because it gave them association with a very successful global brand in higher education, but on the other hand, they were getting lost in the noise” of the rest of the UK.
Kemp’s report questions whether they would not have an even higher profile if they marketed themselves more distinctly from their counterparts south of the border. The more collaborative nature of the Scottish funding system, the approach to research pooling, the way education is seen as a public good in Scottish society – all are positive messages about Scottish higher education that the authors of the report feel aren’t necessarily being fully communicated to an international audience.
The different fee regime and particularly the four-year degree structure are two aspects of Scottish HE that are particularly under-represented. Kemp says that “even within Europe, among some leading international education professionals, awareness of the different fee regimes between Scotland and England was not known or understood.”
In addition, the fact that undergraduate degrees in Scotland generally take a year longer than elsewhere in the UK means that “difficulties are experienced by Scottish institutions in marketing programmes to potential international students.
Universities in the rest of the UK tend to dominate the promotional activity surrounding study in the UK, given their total size compared with that of Scotland; in particular their publicity emphasises the three-year honours degree programmes. The consequence is that the benefits of the Scottish approach can be overlooked or seen as a more expensive route to a similar UK degree outcome,” the report says. “The selling point of the UK has been the three-year degree, which works out at a much lower price than most other countries which are offering four years,” adds Kemp.
Phil Baty, the rankings editor at THE, agrees with Kemp’s assessment. “I think the distinctiveness has absolutely been lacking because there’s been a concerted Britain-wide effort to market Britain as a whole. Part of the problem is this incredible focus on London. The rankings this year were really focused on London, the concentration of excellence in the London-Oxford-Cambridge ‘golden triangle’ is huge. There was a sense that the English regions did seem to be on a downward spiral.
“I think there’s a strong sense that internationally we’re still very much perceived as a UK sector, even though we know that there’s increasing diversity across the United Kingdom in terms of the university systems – they’ve now got different fees and funding arrangements, and I think there is a distinctiveness emerging.”
London has other advantages over Scotland when it comes to attracting foreign students – with a more diverse ethnic makeup than Scottish cities, and far higher concentration of immigrants and foreign nationals, students from overseas are more likely to feel at home. “In terms of attracting international students, there’s a huge preference for being in London. We’ve seen increasingly regional universities setting up campuses in London to play on the fact that international students overwhelmingly choose London. It’s where the students want to study, it’s where there’s a critical mass of student communities.” Glasgow Caledonian University is one of those that has opted to open a London campus to attract international students.
Unless you have the advantage of being based in an exiting major city like Edinburgh, Glasgow or London, you are struggling to work out what your differentiator is, and there is a very real need in a tough global market for students and faculties to find what your niche is.
International students represent a growth market and potential source of increased revenue for universities, but institutions will need to work harder to win them over, with growing competition from other countries. “Students are getting much more sophisticated, the market is getting way more competitive,” says Baty. “You’ve also now got a big, growing phenomenon of German, Dutch and even French universities teaching in English to try and lure even more international students to the continent, whereas traditionally, they would have gone to the UK or the US.
“I think universities have to be more sophisticated about what is your unique selling point, what is special about you, and using the idea of Scottishness is something of real value to differential yourself.” Factors that may seem ephemeral also come into play. “People do pay attention to things like the countryside, the history, the heritage. It’s not just about is the university world class or not or how much are the fees,” says Baty. “I was in Australia last week, and I still heard references to St Andrews and Prince William.”