Singapore and Malaysia are hot beds of UK higher education transnational education (TNE). They are at the top of the list of host countries with most UK TNE students registered in 2014-15. One in six of the UK's TNE students are in these two countries, and with appetites for collaboration growing, this looks set to be a focus for the UK for years to come. It is thus important for the UK higher education sector to ensure good relationships with Malaysia and Singapore.
Singapore government's approach to degree awarding powers is very rigorous. Not every institution is able to award degrees, and many can only offer education programmes to a pre-HE level. Some of those organisations partner with universities who have degree awarding powers, including international universities, to 'top up' first years of study with final programme years at degree level.
As Raegan and I started our Singapore visits, we went to LASALLE College of the Arts, a partner of Goldsmiths, University of London. I knew of them from a UK perspective because of the case study in HEGlobal's The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE report, which we published last July. This time our entry point was the other side of the partnership.
The Vice-President (Academic) and Provost of LASALLE, Venka Purushothaman, explained that his institution was drawn to partner with Goldsmiths because of the modern take on the arts that the two institutions share. The partnership with Goldsmiths gives LASALLE the opportunity to offer some thirty degree programmes. It is crucial to LASALLE's expansion strategy as it grows its reputation as a global institute for the arts, at all levels of study.
The Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) which we visited the next day operates partnerships with eight universities around the world, mostly from the UK but also in France, Australia and the USA. On its own, MDIS awards diplomas in many subjects, but the partnerships allow it to also offer degree courses across eight schools. For example, their bachelor and master's degrees in engineering are validated by Northumbria University and Nottingham Trent University awards the degrees offered by its School of Fashion & Design.
The global experience provided by TNE became a recurrent subject of conversation during our trip. Paul Rennie OBE, Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia opened the OBHE Forum with a speech detailing the need to be a global graduate if one wants to be employed in our interconnected and international world. Similarly, Acting Director General of the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia Dr Datin Paduka Siti Hamisah Tapsir told us that, "the employability of graduates is the surest way to measure the positive impact of TNE".
Indeed, TNE can help to create a graduate workforce. Sometimes host countries look to TNE to strengthen their higher education offer through high-value know-how and capacity. The TNE graduates are thus more attractive to companies in the tertiary sector.
We had heard similar benefits of TNE for students and employers when visiting universities and colleges in Singapore a few days before. However, such a graduate workforce can be problematic in a small island city-state like Singapore. While the Singaporean working population is very mobile and open to overseas employment, most would prefer to stay close to their family and in their culture, according to a Hays report. Some institutions focus on smaller groups and high quality, tailored provision, to balance these demands for a higher skilled workforce that meets the scale of market demand.
The Glasgow School of Arts Singapore enrols fewer than a couple of hundred students each year onto just two courses, to ensure the best possible experience to the students. They receive an experience similar to that of students learning in Glasgow, and can also visit the UK, enhancing their international exposure and understanding.
The term 'international branch campus' is being challenged on some counts, both from the home and host country. Many universities are moving to alternative descriptors. Heriot-Watt University, for example, talks of being 'an international university with multiple locations'. In doing so, it equalises the status of its campuses across Scotland, Malaysia and Dubai.
Increasingly, universities are using their overseas campuses to increase student and staff mobility. Whilst mobility numbers out of the UK remain small, the potential for this trend to increase the intercultural opportunities of TNE are important. At the OBHE Global Forum Dr Robert Coelen, Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education at Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, mentioned Stenden's use of their campuses in Bali and Qatar to promote 'inter-campus student mobility'. In such a configuration, neither student nor programme has home or host country, but multiple homes.
From this perspective, a delegate at the OBHE conference asked if the future of TNE will be national: 'Will international branch campuses become entirely independent from "home" campuses and become national institutions of the host country?'
One of the reasons that the universities we visited like working with UK universities is their 'Britishness', and this continued into discussions at the OBHE conference with delegates from all round the world. The UK's calling cards of excellence in quality assurance, programme design and assessment offer reassurances to partners and are sometimes used by overseas governments as a means of raising quality in local provision.
Noting the importance of the UK brand, British Council and GREAT have been rolling out the new Study UK - Discover You campaign this autumn, showcasing the excellence of the UK higher education sector.
Referring to universities and higher education sectors as brands brings us to what Deputy High Commissioner Paul Rennie OBE called the 'business of education' during his comments at the OBHE conference. There was much discussion amongst delegates about trends including digitalisation and marketisation, and what they mean in the context of higher education growth.
In some quarters this has meant a move towards higher education institutions being viewed as businesses with students as consumers.
As such, Graham Kendall, CEO, Provost and Pro Vice Chancellor at The University of Nottingham Malaysia closed the conference by asking the audience, while referring to Airbnb and Uber:
'Will higher education go through the same process as other industries and see a middle man become the largest provider of higher education in the world without owning any of it?'
We wait with bated breath.