Affordability is the key to expanding international HE

Huge new markets for international students are opening up in Asia and the Middle East as parents search for affordable, quality higher education for their offspring and question the wisdom of sending them to Western universities for three of four years of study.

That is the view of Ashwin Assomull, a partner with Parthenon Group’s international education practice, who has worked with government ministers and foundations in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India.

Speaking at a conference on “The International Higher Education Revolution: Impacts on mobility, qualifications, networks”, organised by The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, or OBHE, he said Western universities need to be actively seeking partnerships in emerging markets to make it easier for new segments of students to access their courses.

Second thoughts about studying abroad

With growing doubts about whether Western universities will continue to attract increasing numbers of students from China, India and Southeast Asia, Assomull said universities should focus on parents and students who are having second thoughts about the value of studying abroad.

“Parents, who were very positive, are now shying away from sending their kids abroad to study, particularly in China,” said Assomull, who cited concerns about students attending lower-tier universities in the West and the expansion of domestic provision, which meant there could be “better universities closer to home”.

One factor, however, continues to work in the West’s favour and that is the continual dominance of Western and Australian universities in the world rankings.

Assomull said: “Despite the significant amounts invested in education, the number of Chinese universities in the Top 200 has declined according to the latest rankings. Of course, rankings are not a perfect measure of quality, but they are one of the drivers for parents sending their children abroad.”

Improved domestic provision

As a counter strategy to trying to attract more and more international students to home campuses, Western universities should take advantage of improved domestic provision not just in Asia, but also in Africa, which is also building its university base, said Assomull.

In the past, the approach of Western universities has been to set up in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Singapore, which are very open to attracting some of the leading university brands.

“But the traditional branch campus tends to be very expensive and when we talk to universities there tends to be a lot of trepidation. It can also be tough from the regulatory perspective.”

Instead, universities should seize the “phenomenal opportunity” to bring some of the best brands to these markets without having to set up a full-scale or full-grown campus.

“The trick is to set your fees at a level that is in line with affordability. This will allow you to access students and parents who can’t afford to send their kids abroad for four years of study.”

A number of leading Australian universities have done just this, with lower fees for students studying in their home countries. The University of Wollongong, for example, charges US$22,000 for studying at its home campus and just US$12,000 in Dubai, said Assomull.

The right mix

The key is offering the right mix, with the focus on employability-led courses and providing the right model and partnerships.

Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, for instance, started with a small campus in Dubai and worked closely with employers, and now has 2,000 students there.

For universities that want to “dip their toe in the water” rather than set up a branch campus, Assomull suggested they should consider the higher education institute model, which is very popular in Asia.

This provides local delivery of teaching, with accreditation and quality control remaining in the hands of the degree-awarding university.

As for online learning and MOOCs, Assomull said surveys by the Parthenon Group had shown that employers – especially in Asia – still favoured the traditional degree.

“There was nervousness about the quality and delivery of online degrees. This was the same among both large multinationals and domestic employers in Asia, and this affects student motivation. They want the ‘real thing’, too!

“I don’t want to come out and say that in Asia there is no reason to offer courses online, but they have to be targeted and you have to work with the right partners to deliver something that will be commercially successful,” Assomull stressed.

He gave the University of Liverpool Laureate online education provision in Singapore, as a good example. It has 10,000 students enrolled and targets professionals with between eight and 15 years work experience, who are looking more for further education and enhancement of skills than a degree qualification.

Another example was Manchester Business School’s blended approach, which is partly taught online, has 3,500 students in seven global centres, and is extremely profitable, with fees of US$40,000 for the MBA.

“If you are in the right location and have the right partners, you can deliver high value at low cost,” said Assomull.

As for MOOCs, despite Indians being the second highest users after the United States, completion rates are very low. However, said Assomull, they provide “a good opportunity to promote your brand” and become better known in crowded markets, such as Mumbai or Shanghai, where students have so much choice.

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.