Minister proposes overseas campuses as alternative to international student recruitment
Times Higher Education reports that David Willetts seems to be pushing overseas campus expansion – with private finance support – to compensate for reduced international student recruitment resulting from government immigration policies. The idea features, not for the first time, in a speech on international higher education he delivered at the Goldman Sachs-Stanford University Global Education Conference on 20 June:
His call for universities to seek alternative financing for expansion overseas comes amid a drive for every government department to identify sources of economic growth.
The minister is also seeking ways for UK universities to maximise the number of overseas students they teach abroad. The government’s tougher immigration controls threaten to cut the number of students able to enter the UK for study at universities.
Mr Willetts said: “Our universities are internationally recognised: they are a great British brand. We can do more to take advantage of our position. Our universities are well financed for what they do but underfinanced for big expansion. I want to see investors from Britain and abroad helping our universities access these big overseas markets. I know that companies like Goldman Sachs who have organised this conference…are keen to investigate this possibility.”
The minister hopes that Goldman Sachs will be able to identify private investors willing to finance developments such as overseas branch campuses and distance-learning operations.
A previous post reported on an earlier speech by Mr Willetts on the issue of internationalisation. He is undoubtedly serious about the proposition. And he is right to point to the success of the University of Nottingham and others in establishing campuses overseas. However, there are several fundamental problems with this notion:
- The income generated by overseas campuses will do very little to offset losses from underrecruitment of international students in the UK. Even where it may be possible and appropriate to repatriate surpluses, the sums involved will not get anywhere near the level of international student income currently received by UK universities.
- The de-diversification of UK campuses resulting from the decline in international students will harm the learning experience for all.
- Building, growing and sustaining an overseas campus is a long game. Even if every UK university had one it would take a very long time to get to a point where they were capable of providing the scale of export benefit the UK currently enjoys.
- If the primary aim of building an overseas campus is to make money then it is unlikely to provide a good basis for a productive relationship with a host country.
So, even with the backing of Goldman Sachs it is not clear that the overseas campus option is going to come close to compensating for the anticipated impact of immigration policies on international student numbers in the UK. The other angle discussed by the Minister, distance learning, may offer possibilities but again is unlikely to deliver on the scale required. Better perhaps to review those immigration policies instead.