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Today, international engagement is for everyone

27 March 2017
Professor Dominic Shellard

Gordon McKenzie

Chief Executive
GuildHE

You know that moment at a conference when the chair asks for questions from the audience and all that happens is silence?  Last week I had the privilege of chairing two sessions at the International Higher Education Forum and, obviously, I’d prepared my own questions to fill the awkward gap.  But this time, there was no need. Both sessions had a fantastic buzz and enthusiastic audiences (standing room only in one case) eager to ask great speakers more about the opportunities for smaller and specialist institutions to engage and succeed internationally. 

Study UK: Discover You opportunities for specialist institutions

In the first, we heard from Simon Edwards about Education is GREAT and how institutions can align their marketing and social media presence with the Study UK: Discover You campaign to get added impact. From awards and campaign films featuring alumni to scholarships, the session explored the practical help available. You could also see the potential for specialist universities to build links across the different pillars of the GREAT Britain campaign, for example on our creative industries: creative focused universities alone contribute at least £8.4 billion to the UK economy.

Transnational education for specialist institutions

In the second we explored current trends in transnational education (TNE) and looked in depth at the 30-year-old partnership between Abertay and SEGi Universities.

Janet Ilieva showed that since 2009–10, while the numbers of students coming to study in the UK have stagnated, TNE has kept on growing. And the evidence suggests growth is set to continue. Rising disposable income and many countries’ desire to develop their own higher education systems mean that demand for UK degrees and expertise supports further expansion in TNE.

Professor Steve Olivier and Professor Dr Patrick Kee Peng Kong described how the oldest UK/Malaysia higher education evolved. Beginning with accountancy the range of courses has developed to include business, marketing, IT, civil engineering and MBAs: there are now 1,350 students studying Abertay degrees in Malaysia and the number is set to grow year on year. Evolution of the partnership is constant with the next phase involving more shared teaching, including technological innovations, and research links.

Steve and Patrick talked frankly about the inevitable frustrations and difficulties caused by different teaching styles and expectations and by different regulatory regimes. But they were clear these were far outweighed by the benefits. For Abertay, these included a more stable form of international activity than teaching overseas students in Scotland, where UKVI rules can bite particularly hard and arbitrarily on smaller institutions (with Steve referencing Alex Bols’s recent WonkHE blog).

But if UK politicians see TNE as the way of squaring their self-drawn circle of saying they support education exports while continuing to count students in migration targets then it was clear they should think again. Firstly, TNE isn’t a wholly separate activity, isolated from teaching people in this country – HEFCE figures show that one third of the first-degree international students in England commenced their programme overseas by the means of a TNE course. As such they spend on average between one and two years here in the UK. Secondly, the overriding message from Abertay and SEGi was that successful and sustainable TNE has to be a partnership of equals – off-shoring UK higher education for national financial gain while erecting barriers to international student mobility won’t wash.

Excellence in Diversity

Two years ago, GuildHE published Excellence in Diversity to celebrate the teaching, research and knowledge exchange in smaller, regionally-focused and specialist institutions. We made the case that UK higher education was excellent, in part because it was so diverse. And we challenged the stereotype that international engagement was only for big universities saying, “All institutions across the sector are now – to a greater or lesser extent – part of a global community of research, teaching and professional practice”. This year’s International Higher Education Forum was a perfect illustration of that fact.

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