Avoid transactional view of international HE, says guru

Universities in the United Kingdom have been warned that the age of ‘transactional engagement’ towards international higher education is well and truly over in a parting shot from the former deputy vice-chancellor (international) at Coventry University, David Pilsbury, who oversaw a six-fold increase in overseas recruitment in his 13-year reign.

Dr Pilsbury, a favourite platform speaker on the UK global higher education conference circuit and frequent commentator in the trade media, is taking up a new role as chief development officer with the London-based Oxford International Education Group, where he will lead on higher education growth and development strategy.

While at Coventry, a modern university with its main campus in the English Midlands, he was responsible for establishing the UK’s largest overseas collaborative delivery programme with over 20,000 students in almost 30 countries, and attracting 10,000 overseas students to Coventry University from outside Europe and a further 5,000 from countries within the European Union.

But the easy times for international higher education engagement are over, he told University World News.

With several factors combining, including Brexit, in regard to EU student recruitment, and more competition from markets offering programmes taught in English, UK universities can no longer sit back and rely on their brand and reputation to keep the international students and their tuition fees rolling in, Pilsbury says.

“The world is changing under our feet, but the UK in particular is obsessed with tactical responses to Brexit and COVID and many are desperate to find a path back to business as usual.”

Time for serious reflection

Pilsbury says it is time for some serious reflection on some of the major challenges facing UK higher education.

“We have become very expensive and we are failing to articulate the benefits of study in the United Kingdom and the unique features of the UK, such as language, employability and research-led teaching.

“Once universities could get away with seeing international higher education as a transactional arrangement that was a long way from home and they didn’t need to worry much about it as long as the money was flowing in.”

Bad news travels faster

He says: “But the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, modern travel making the world much smaller and social media making the student voice much louder mean bad news travels so much faster.

“People who understand international higher education know that with resources being squeezed and the cost of the legion of people that universities seem to think have to be involved in establishing and servicing a partnership miles from home, it is not worth the reputational risk and damage to recruitment of doing it badly.

“That risk includes bringing the regulators down on you, especially now the UK’s Office for Students has declared their locus in transnational education.”

Leaving Coventry

Pilsbury is leaving Coventry with no regrets and looking forward to joining Oxford International, an ambitious and accredited private education provider operating international colleges, English language centres across the UK, Europe and North America as well as an online learning platform.

He told University World News: “I worked with some absolutely outstanding people in Coventry and we did some truly incredible things – in fact we did pretty much everything you can do with a university.

“The last ambition I had, to set up an overseas campus operation delivering a sophisticated vision of TNE [transnational education] is just days away as Coventry will shortly receive the formal letter from the Ministry of Education for its joint campus in Hainan with the Communication University of China.”

What makes TNE work

Pilsbury has strong views on what works and what doesn’t with transnational education and believes in what he calls TNE 4.0, as University World News reported last week when he spoke of the need to build “mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with shared planning, investment and academic development”, referring to UK higher education ties with Europe in the post-Brexit era.

He says universities need to be clear about why they are doing TNE, whether that’s collaborative programmes, validation or a branch campus, and ask some serious questions about whether it makes sense to do it and how it is to be effectively managed and monitored.

But despite that, he says: “There are few things as rewarding as setting up a really top quality collaborative programme. It brings out the very best in people, creates really innovative new opportunities for students, staff and the institution as a whole – so do it, where it makes sense for you, but do it well! Give it to your best people, give them the time to do it properly, make sure you extract all the synergies – then it makes perfect sense.”

He told University World News that any institution calling itself a global university cannot simply rely on internationalisation at home and recommends collaborative delivery rather than a go-it-alone “neo-colonial imposition of a UK campus model in an alien environment”.

Collaborative delivery

He says: “Collaborative delivery remains a major hedge against further adverse changes in UK visa and immigration policy and students already on a learning pathway in their country of origin are generally seen as at lower risk of overstaying.

“When delivered at scale the revenues and profits from collaborative delivery become significant and sustainable – a major driver behind the joint venture agenda.

“Deep engagement with in-country partners also provides an excellent basis to engage with the governments, regulators and industrial partners in the region, enhancing our understanding of markets and access to market intelligence.”

Pilsbury says co-creation of teaching and learning with overseas partners also drives “internationalisation at home” initiatives, and TNE partners offering the same or similar programmes at scale in a quality assured environment are “an essential part of the global platform necessary to hit challenging mobility targets”.

Take care with branch campuses

As for overseas branch campuses, Pilsbury warns universities to take care and do due diligence before taking the plunge.

Look at the quality of existing local education provision, the birth rates and the match between supply and demand as well as the fees charged by local higher education providers before deciding on a location and consider sharing the risk with a private provider, as Lancaster University did with Navitas in Leipzig, he says.

The key to all TNE activities is to do your homework, he says, and be on the ground. “If you want a joint venture in Vietnam or Indonesia, don’t think [that] opening an office somewhere that feels like home, such as Singapore, will do. There’s no advantage and it can be a disadvantage as you won’t know what is going on in the rest of Southeast Asia or be close to home and knowing what is going on in your home campus.

Forget about regional hubs

“The same mistake is made by opening an office in Brussels and thinking you can service the whole of Europe from there.

“Forget about regional hubs. Have an office where you want to be as Coventry has in different parts of China.

“Don’t treat Europe as one market and be humble about what partners bring. Pick where you go in Europe, or any other region, carefully and engage with it wisely driven by what you have to offer and what the market needs.

“It probably won’t be over-priced generic UK degrees. More likely, it will be specialist programmes, postgraduate programmes, delivery in countries where local provision doesn’t meet all needs. There is little point going where local provision is cheap and-or high quality or where local birth rates are low and tertiary education creates issues.”

With that, he is off to join fellow new recruit, Andy Palmer, who has been appointed managing director of the University Partnerships Division at Oxford International. And in a parting shot, he says: “Universities really need trusted partners with whom they can work strategically to deliver success in increasingly competitive markets.”

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