Six months ago, the Higher Education sector may have looked upon foreign branch campuses as risky territory – known for consuming vast quantities of money, time, and resources with mixed results. UK HE has seen both scenarios play out where long term strategic investment helps build international reputation, prestige and diversity of income streams; but also many circumstances where hastily set up institutions have failed catastrophically, damaging reputations and the education of the students who signed up with them in good faith. In a famously risk-averse sector, it’s understandable why foreign branch campuses have been eyed warily.
And yet, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest the tide is turning here. In July 2020 most universities in countries like the UK, US, and Australia are worrying about shortfalls in tuition fee income largely driven by the decrease in global student mobility that has come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet there is a significant strain of optimism running through those universities with foreign branch campuses – many set up in South East Asia and the Middle East.
Professor Peter Coloe, Chairman of RMIT Vietnam commented that in Vietnam, where approximately 180,000 students leave the country each year to study abroad, mainly in the US and Australia, there is a huge appetite for the western educational model delivered in country now that there are significant barriers to travelling overseas. And Universities like RMIT Vietnam are poised to step into the void. Though they have competitors, RMIT Vietnam is the only international public university with a dedicated campus in the country. This is significant because like many other South East Asian countries, we can see from the available data that Vietnam escaped the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed. The country went into lock down early and absolutely, closing off borders to control the flow of possible vectors. Now the country is opening up again, and unlike here in the UK, students are enjoying face-to-face delivery of education. Why then would a student pay significant overseas tuition for online classes when there is a locally delivered, physical Western-style option down the road?
The biggest limitation an institution like RMIT Vietnam faces therefore is their physical capacity. In order to cope with increased demand, one can imagine institutions like theirs employing a blended learning model to serve more students without sacrificing the physical connection in short supply these days. And as travel restrictions become less onerous over the next couple of years, the key to retaining these students will be through established pathway partnerships back into the host institution. There will of course be stiff competition from less scrupulous institutions, notably from the private sector, which will likely try to expand more quickly in the short term; however they will inevitably lose the immediate gains made when students have the option to travel to their destinations of choice again.
A similar pattern emerges in markets like Malaysia and Indonesia – if even only 25% of those students who intended on doing their tertiary education overseas instead look to remain in country, the numbers are significant enough in order to drive a huge increase in tuition income.
Professor Ammar Kaka, Head of Heriot-Watt’s Dubai campus, noted that institutions such as his own, Middlesex, Birmingham, Curtin, Wollongong and Murdoch are also poised to benefit, particularly from a shaky geopolitical relationship between China and the US. Coupled with a significantly better governmental response to the pandemic, many foreign branch campuses in the area anticipate that Chinese parents of international students will opt for ‘safer’ options delivered closer to home.
Understandably, those who lead these campuses are feeling rather confident about the future.
Increased importance of overseas collaboration
But all is not lost for those universities which haven’t put bricks and mortar down on foreign soil. Through dozens of conversations with UK-based Pro Vice-Chancellors International, we understand that overseas collaborations and partnerships are set to become more important than ever. We should expect to see a significant rise in the number and quality of UK-initiated Transnational Educational partnerships around the globe in the coming terms. Indeed, Dr Joanna Newman, Chief Executive and Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and former PVC I herself, notes that the role of the PVC International is set to change in response to the challenges COVID-19 has thrown up. Partnership building will become (where it is not already) more intrinsic to the role and therefore pull Internationalisation closer to the core strategic mission of the university.
Dr Zubair Hanslot, Provost of the University of Bolton who has deep experience of setting up international campuses and partnerships commented that COVID-19 has focused the minds of those in the international education space and has likely accelerated an inevitable process by up to five years. The drive to develop more meaningful TNE partnerships will carry forward the AI revolution – Industry 4.0 – throughout the Higher Education sector. From where we stand right now, the way that people will receive education in the near future is yet to be defined, and TNE will likely be a significantly contributing engine to innovation. The demand for a UK qualification is not likely to diminish, but the way in which it is delivered will. Universities that seek to tackle this conundrum will be positioned to fair much better in a turbulent, global market.
Though it may be too late to set up a physical entity in Vietnam, Malaysia, or the UAE, we will nevertheless see increased visibility of UK HE on a global scale as universities seek to successfully broker partnerships which are authentic to the mission of the institution. The future of TNE is bright, so here at least is one area where we can feel optimistic about the future of Higher Education – if not for the survival of individual institutions, but for a revival of the global reputation of UK Higher Education as institutions build meaningful connections around the world with renewed vigour.
For more information, please contact Alex Albone, a Consultant in Berwick Partners Higher Education practice.