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Exploring the changing global environment for universities

  • 23 November 2017
  • By Diana Beech

Earlier this month, HEPI collaborated with PwC to host a roundtable dinner in Leeds on the changing global environment for universities, attended by senior leaders from across the region. The dinner was the first in a series of three HEPI/PwC roundtables which will be taking place around the country over the next six months.

Building on the latest edition of PwC’s HE Matters, we wanted the Leeds roundtable to explore in detail what issues internationalisation is raising in our institutions.

The context

Internationalisation is not just a matter of opening branch campuses overseas. It permeates all areas of the day-to-day life of universities:

  • Many institutions rely on revenues coming from international ventures and overseas students (as explored in the latest HEPI report, How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, which reveals each international student pays £8,000 towards research).
  • Employing the best staff from all over the world is crucial to the sector’s ongoing success, both in teaching and research.
  • Engaging internationally also allows universities to ‘make a difference’ in the world and demonstrate their commitment to social responsibility.

Acknowledging the dangers

Although the reasons for internationalisation are well understood in the sector, putting together effective strategies, governance structures and risk management plans to embrace it are more challenging. For institutions operating in a complex international environment, responding to changing global trends requires considerable investment and it can pose major financial and reputational risks.

Embracing internationalism can put universities at the mercy of various political, legal and economic factors, including:

  • changing global tax, immigration or security systems;
  • disruptive technologies and changes in education delivery;
  • changing student demand;
  • being caught up in bribery and unscrupulous donations; and
  • increasing competition.

Competition or collaboration?

Most universities would have already encountered one or more of the above problems when operating internationally, yet there is a general reluctance in the sector to share experiences about international collaborations or overseas expansion. This was put down to the competitiveness of the sector – something which is hampering us from finding out from others what works and what does not.

Yet, one Vice-Chancellor stressed the need to remember that all universities in the UK are different – a reflection of their unique histories rooted in their respective communities – so there is often no harm in sharing knowledge or experience. A cultural change in this respect is something from which everyone in the sector could benefit and is all the more pressing in the ‘reductionist era’ in which UK universities are now operating.

Our conversations revealed concern that the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), which has split the teaching and research functions of universities between the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), is encouraging us to ‘think in little bits’ about university policy – rather than considering the higher education experience as a whole. Participants agreed that now is the time to ‘fight back’ against this growing insularity. As one Vice-Chancellor put it: ‘If universities start being insular then there’s not much hope for the rest of the world’.

Local matters

Going global comes with some caveats, however. If the current climate of Brexit has taught us anything, it is important for universities to build strong roots in their own cities and local communities. The effort to promote a university internationally cannot just come from the university and its staff, but it also needs the ‘buy-in’ and support of the local community.

One Vice-Chancellor described the internationalisation of higher education as being about the ‘intellectual cross-fertilisation between different peoples’, as well as the ‘cross-fertilisation of teaching to research’. However, universities have not always articulated this process clearly and, so, have lost moral authority in the public eye.

A call to action

Now is not the time to be despondent. Participants sensed a ‘deliberate attempt to undermine higher education’ over the past few months and agreed we must not let this win. Now is the time for UK universities to come together and find their collective voice to ensure that they remain in a sector where internationalisation thrives. Instead of shying away from these chaotic times we live in, universities should be using them to think ahead and make a real difference to the world around us.

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