June 28, 2012, by Chris Ennew
International Campuses or International Students?
For those of us who have long been active in developing educational and research provision outside the UK, it is heartening to learn that David Willets is keen to address the barriers to greater engagement by UK universities in overseas ventures. Developments such as international campuses (a major focus of recent discussions in the UK Government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) have the potential to bring genuine benefits to individual institutions and to the sector as a whole. They provide an opportunity to work with talented students and academics who might not otherwise have engaged with UK HE; they offer distinctive mobility opportunities for staff and students; they can provide novel research opportunities and they contribute to the global reputation of UK HE.
But we should be careful not to delude ourselves that this activity is an “export” in any substantive economic sense. One of the distinctive features of an “export” is the generation of a flow of income to the home country in return for the provision of a service to an overseas market. UK HE already has an outstanding record in exporting HE, through the stream of international students who arrive every year to study at UK Universities. These students generate significant export earnings through the fees that they pay (perhaps as much as £8bn annually) and provide an additional economic impact through their spending while studying in the UK. More significantly perhaps, they contribute to the diversity and quality of the student body and in the longer term they help to build positive and enduring relationships between the UK and a range of other countries across the world.
The international record of UK higher education is now seriously threatened by a damaging immigration policy which BIS has been unable to counter. And the consequence for the sector and the economy of a significant drop in internationally mobile students coming to study in the UK could be disastrous – both in terms of a loss of talent and a loss of income. More insidiously the idea that we can simply substitute new income from international campuses for lost income from internationally mobile students suggests that financial motives dominate our interest in internationalisation in higher education. That is not to suggest that export earnings do not matter. They do. But internationally mobile students studying on UK campuses bring so much more for the student experience on campus and to the longer term position of the UK in the world economy and we must not under-estimate these non-financial benefits from international student recruitment.
And, it would be misguided to think that the establishment of campuses overseas (however funded) could be a substitute for international students coming to study in the UK. The experience of the University of Nottingham with its campuses in Malaysia and China has been hugely positive and the benefits of campus development have been considerable. But net income isn’t one of them. International campuses receive their income within the country in which they operate and incur most of their costs in that same location. Financially they are substantially based in their host economy. Almost by definition then, there will be relatively low income flows back to the home country.
Done well and done properly, an international campus will be economically viable, certainly in the medium term and will deliver a range of other non-monetary benefits. But, expecting any resulting revenues to replace the lost income that will materialise if the Home Office ever gets close to its targets for reducing net migration to the UK is both unrealistic and dangerous. In the longer term interests of the UK economy and its world leading Universities, international campuses and internationally mobile students must be seen as complementary initiatives in internationalisation, not alternatives.
Christine Ennew (Professor of Marketing, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Internationalisation and Europe – Nottingham University Business School)