Location is key to attracting foreign students

Some two decades ago, I moved from my native Netherlands to London to take up a position at the University of Westminster. Since that name was then only one year old, I thought it would be good to attend some of the British Council recruitment fairs abroad and see how the university and its new name were perceived by potential students across the globe.

Almost all started with the same question: how far is Westminster from London? It made me realise we should not overestimate global knowledge about UK geography. We sensibly introduced the strap line 'education at the heart of London'. There was, however, a much more important lesson to be gained from this. The penny dropped only a year later when I went to Australia.

In those days universities down under were well ahead in working with international students. When I shared my experience with the name Westminster, their reply was: 'No worries mate, in our case the first question is always: how far is your university from the beach?'

I checked the brochures and sure enough, the Australian beaches featured prominently. The real lesson was: students are not just looking at the institution, they are equally interested in the lifestyle they offer. And quite rightly so.

In the UK we are blessed with a wonderfully diverse spectrum of higher education institutions, also in terms of location. We have nice greenfield campuses, metropolitan institutions and a range of universities and colleges at the heart of our major cities. These very different environments are more relevant than we think.

The lure of campus universities

Having previously been in charge of a campus university, do not expect me to sneer at the 'university in the middle of nowhere'. Studying in green isolation is especially attractive for younger students who will benefit from same age group, peer learning and who might be more drawn to a well-equipped lab than to the latest West End musical.

The downside of this type of institution is that they can become rather inward-looking. By contrast, those students who want to be in the thick of the action will go for colleges in the big cities. Their community tends to be less closed, also less coherent since there are rather a lot of alternatives to the student union bar right on the doorstep.

But most students love that lifestyle (their parents not necessarily, though). Still, leaving aside lifestyle choices, a city like London will not be the obvious place of study for those wanting to study subjects such as agriculture, mining or aviation.

Ultimately it is all about horses for courses. So we have to make choices. Most business schools tend to carefully and purposely select sites in the centre of large cities. This is to enable business students, young professionals and entrepreneurs to treat their city environment as their classroom. They want to be close to the big employers, to culture and to the urban lifestyle.

From my experience, the typical business student would quite simply be unhappy locked up in a campus environment. They want to explore the world – globally as well as locally.

A rich environment

London, especially, is privileged in having some of the top knowledge institutions in the world. It is not just because it is able to attract that 'type' of student and staff, but also because its research tends to benefit from the open relationship with its environment of corporate headquarters, political decision makers, embassies, prominent NGOs etc.

The costs are higher, but the result is a much richer environment in every aspect. Anyway, this memory about my early days at Westminster unexpectedly came back to me last week when I oversaw the opening of the London School of Business and Finance’s new campus in Tower Hill.

With classrooms overlooking the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and the city skyline, it cannot be clearer about where it belongs: in the city, alongside employers and decision-makers. And, at a personal level, I suddenly realised that 20 years ago my office in Westminster – admittedly rather more modest in those days – was just a short walking distance away.

Though I would say that while over the decades in higher education the world has been my oyster, the one or two square miles that stretch out underneath my window are very much my natural habitat.

Evidently not just students vote with their feet.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is rector and chief executive at the London School of Business and Finance, or LSBF