UK universities need a better way of engaging with Europe

Universities in the United Kingdom are waking up to the need to have a proactive European engagement strategy – but only after at first being stunned by the Brexit referendum result and then procrastinating during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to international strategy development experts.

With competition for international students increasing from European universities as more offer courses taught in English, several UK universities have taken the plunge and opened branch campuses on the European mainland. But the results are very mixed so far.

Lancaster and Coventry branch out

Lancaster University launched a branch campus in partnership with Navitas in Leipzig, Germany, and welcomed its first students in January 2020 to a pathway foundation year just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and disrupted international higher education.

Meanwhile, Coventry University adopted a ‘go-it-alone’ approach with a new branch campus in Wroclaw in Poland and opened applications to students from outside the European Union in October 2020, following permission from the Polish government to also recruit from outside the EU.

Getting going before Brexit was done and dusted and the transition period for the UK’s exit from the EU ended on 31 December 2020 was seen as vital to avoid any problems connected with Britain’s final departure from the European bloc.

Lancaster University decided on Leipzig in eastern Germany for their new venture after an extensive search of possible locations throughout Europe together with Navitas, the Australian-owned private higher education services company.

Navitas has a long track record of offshore campus partnerships with education institutions around the world and Paul Lovegrove, its chief executive of university partnerships in Europe, told University World News: “Lancaster University was very clear that this was part of a post-Brexit strategy.

“They knew the UK was going to lose EU students as a result of Brexit and they wanted to see what options they had. So, our brief with them was to map Europe with no preconceptions of which country to go for.”

The concern that EU recruitment to British universities would nosedive proved spot on, as University World News reported this week, with a 56% plunge in EU students accepted at UK universities by 10 August 2021.

Alarm bells ringing

Alarm bells are ringing, say UK international higher education experts, with independent consultant Dr Vicky Lewis telling University World News: “UK universities are only now waking up to the need to have a proactive European engagement strategy.

“Brexit and then COVID seemed to trigger procrastination and universities involved with Europe took a quite tactical approach. But that’s not enough.

“When I did research for my survey of UK universities’ global engagement strategies, which University World News reported on in January 2021, there was a distinct lack of emphasis on Europe and rebuilding European relationships post-Brexit.

“There were exceptions, such as Lancaster University’s Leipzig campus and Coventry University in Poland, and some more established research-intensive universities did strengthen their research partnerships. And some 20 or so UK universities have taken a blanket approach to try to shore up their recruitment from EU countries by adopting transition arrangements and charging the same as UK students, but without the benefit of the loan system.”

Lewis said she was surprised at the lack of emphasis on Europe in the recent strategic plans of UK universities and urged higher education leaders to seize partnership opportunities.

“We should be joining forces with EU universities, building up their English-medium provision and offering joint degrees with them and expanding transnational education partnerships. We can’t just treat the EU as an out and out recruiting ground. We need reciprocity in our approach.”

Focus on TNE 4.0

David Pilsbury, who until recently was deputy vice-chancellor (international) at Coventry University, agreed with Lewis and told University World News there was no excuse for UK universities not getting their act together and expanding transnational education (TNE) activities and shifting the focus of their EU recruitment from east and southeast to west and northern Europe in the five years since the Brexit referendum.

He said universities should be concentrating on what he called TNE 4.0 and build “mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with shared planning, investment and academic development”, and strengthen links with industry and employability for students “as opposed to a neo-colonial imposition of a UK campus model into an alien environment”.

While setting up a branch campus – as Coventry has done in Poland – was one answer, Pilsbury said: “Collaborative provision represents 75% of TNE activity and it is the bit that is growing.”

Coventry is finding that its one-year top-up degree for students in the RenaSup network of French catholic colleges is proving very popular “as it provides a pathway to masters-level study or employment in English-speaking organisations”.

Pilsbury said he couldn’t comment on how Coventry’s campus in Wroclaw was doing in the latest recruitment cycle, but University World News understands that recruitment was substantially below target in its first year, reflecting the price-sensitive nature of the Polish market and the reluctance to pay £6,000 (US$8,170) for a UK degree taught in Poland.

University World News did ask Coventry University for an update on the Wroclaw campus, but was still waiting for a response as this edition went to press.

However, Adam O’Flynn, Coventry University’s regional manager for Europe, Russia and Central Asia, posted on LinkedIn this week that they were seeking a student recruitment manager for Wroclaw who is fluent in both Polish and English.

Lessons from Leipzig

Meanwhile, the Lancaster University partnership in Leipzig was more forthcoming, with Dr Elisabeth Grindel-Denby, the campus director, telling University World News they had recruited 50 students in their first year and expect to grow to 120 this year.

Lancaster Leipzig is the first public UK university branch campus in Germany and Grindel-Denby admitted: “Growth has been slower than we hoped because of COVID, but we are now offering four bachelor’s degrees in the computing and IT fields.”

She claimed that there was “great demand for the skills we are teaching in the Leipzig area and we are due to offer our first masters degree in 2022”.

Grindel-Denby told University World News: “We have moved to a city centre campus which is proving very popular with our students. Because we are offering the UK model of higher education with plenty of student support, we are going the extra mile in terms of German higher education provision.

“All the lecturers are fully employed Lancaster University research staff and we are not flying in staff, which was probably a good thing given the COVID travel restrictions.

“I would say it has been a fantastic success so far, and one of the things we have learnt is the need for local staff who can act as cultural intermediaries.

“We only teach in English, but we do provide German language courses free of charge and encourage students to learn the local language as many hope to stay and work in Germany after they graduate.

“The student make-up is mostly international, with 50% from non-EU countries, 35% from other EU countries and 15% from Germany.

“The choice of Leipzig was excellent. It is a very quirky city, with a lot of new investment and lots of opportunities to find a job with the skills we are teaching.”

Lovegrove from Navitas said that from their 20 years of experience of developing TNE and branch campus partnerships – which started with an integrated pathway into Edith Cowan University’s undergraduate degrees in Sri Lanka in 1998 and expanded to projects all over the world – they understood the need to take a long-term strategic approach.

“These are complex projects and are usually driven by a few individuals in a university who need to take their colleagues on the journey.

“You need to work with the right people, and you need a lot of due diligence, particularly to get through the regulatory stuff.

“Lancaster is a world top 200 university and that was very attractive to us, and they had a lot of experience in offshore campuses in different parts of the world, including campuses in China, Malaysia and Ghana,” said Lovegrove.

“We already have two partnerships in the Netherlands, but this was our first managed campus in Europe and we did a lot of first-level analysis on which country to go to and were actually surprised when Germany came on top.

“Then we looked at the different regulatory frameworks in Germany’s federal system before deciding that Leipzig was the most attractive location. What we found was a warm welcome from the authorities and an up-and-coming very student-friendly city.

“One of the things we had to sort [out] with the final phase of Brexit looming was the regulatory environment, because under German law at the time only EU universities were allowed to set up branch campuses in Germany. We had special dispensation from the ministry that if we started teaching before Brexit came into full force they would honour the situation and the recognition of Lancaster University and the branch campus.

“Hence, we started the foundation pathway course in January 2020, which was a bit unusual for us, and the first degrees in September,” Lovegrove continued.

“The fact that we have recently moved into our new city centre is a vote of confidence that Lancaster University and Navitas are here for the long term and our students at Leipzig have been among the most positive among all our students surveyed around the world. The momentum is there and we are confident that Leipzig will keep on growing.”

The tuition fees at Lancaster University’s Leipzig campus are €9,000 (US$12,250) for EU students and €15,000 (US$20,400) per annum for non-EU students.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in UK and European higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.