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Introduction and aim
This briefing note considers the recruitment of international students to study in the UK, international research collaboration and students studying at overseas campuses (referred to as ‘offshore’). All of these areas present opportunities and risk, and require effective leadership and governance.
International recruitment and collaboration is one area where the responsibilities of academic governance and corporate governance come together. While academic matters are the responsibility of the senate (or equivalent); major decisions about international student recruitment or more generally collaboration with an international partner often have resource implications and potentially reputational risks. These areas are a legitimate concern to the governing body and if these two aspects of governance are not effectively aligned problems can occur.
Issues for the governing body
The governing body should discuss and formally agree the institution’s international strategy. The strategy should articulate the aims and objectives, how the strategy will be delivered and associated financial forecasts. The strategy should be subject to regular monitoring, including an assessment of actual performance against planned outcomes. The governing body should be made aware at an early stage of any new and major international developments, and satisfy itself that any proposal fits with the institution’s strategic aims, can be successfully implemented; is accompanied by robust financial forecasts; and does not lead to unacceptable reputational risks.
Demand for higher education
Over the last decade the number of students engaged in higher education across the globe has grown significantly. Demand has been fuelled by governments seeing higher education as a means of developing the country’s future workforce, and individuals as a way to enhance life chances and future earnings.
The growing demand for student places has been met by expanding provision in the home country, but also by a significant flow of students to study at institutions overseas, including in the UK. However, continuing investment by home nations in their own education systems may in future lead to a reduced numbers of students from some countries to the UK.
International research partnerships
Research activity at the highest level has increasingly become global. Academic staff increasingly collaborate with peers working outside of the UK, and may themselves spend time working in different countries. Although research collaborations may arise from individual academic staff collaborating, some higher education providers have also entered into international research partnerships with institutions across the world with the aim of collaborating across different faculties and on multiple projects.1 The success of such partnerships depends on a number of factors not least selecting an appropriate partner, who offers a good ‘fit’ for the institution’s work.
One indicator of the increasingly global nature of higher education and the role of internationally recognised research is the annual publication of world rankings of universities.2
International student recruitment
Many UK institutions have responded to the growth of international demand for higher education by developing strategies to increase the number of international students they, or partner organisations, recruit.
A significant driver to the developments relating to international recruitment has been financial. Institutions set their own fee rates for non-EU (international) students, and are able to recover the full costs of teaching these students. As a result international students normally pay significantly higher fees than those for Home and EU students.
The options for institutions when recruiting international students include:
Students studying in the UK
For 2012/13 the total number of higher education students studying in the UK was 2,340,275, of which 425,265 (c18.2%) were from outside of the UK. The main sources of non-EU students were China (83,790), India (22,385), Nigeria (17,395), the United States (16,235) and Malaysia (15,015). Student recruitment from the top ten non-EU countries has grown by 19.4% in five years.3
Student recruitment to the UK
Recruitment of international students requires investment to build (and then maintain) the necessary infrastructure (international office, overseas offices, networks of agents, links with local feeder institutions) to recruit students. Some higher education providers have also partnered with a company specialising in the recruitment of international students (eg. INTO). Irrespective of strategy, most institutions focus their efforts in order to target particular countries.
The attractiveness of a UK higher education provider is influenced by a number of factors, including the reputation of the institution, whether there is an existing community of international students at the institution and the support and facilities available. Provision of student accommodation and learner support can be particularly attractive. Some higher education providers also offer linked preuniversity foundation years, in some cases delivered by further education partners, as feeders to their degree programmes.
Visas and immigration
Higher education providers need a ‘highly trusted status’ (HTS) license from the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) service, to allow the institution to sponsor international students so that they can gain a visa to study in the UK. A licence is valid for 4 years and institutions are subject to inspection by the UKVI’s assurance team. To maintain its HTS the education provider must comply with a set of conditions specified by the UKVI. Failure to comply with these conditions may lead to the license being suspended or revoked. If the license is revoked students cannot study with the institution, and need to find an alternative sponsor to remain in the UK. The revoking of HTS is likely to have significant financial and reputational impacts.4
International student experience
The governing body is responsible for the quality of the student experience and should assure itself that international students enjoy a positive experience. Feedback from students should be sought to establish if their experience was positive, and to identify areas where further improvement may be needed.
Students studying offshore
Some 598,925 students were studying offshore5 for a UK higher education qualification in 2012/13, an increase of 4.9% on the previous year. A detailed breakdown of the level of study and the relationship with the student is given below.6
|Type of activity
|Students registered at a UK higher education institution|
|Overseas campus of reporting HEI||12,280||4,855||17,520|
|Distance, flexible or distributed learning||62,535||61,110||123,635|
|Other arrangements, including collaborative provision||84,890||18,905||103,795|
|Students studying for an award of a UK HEI|
|Overseas partner organisation||335,645||17,675||353,375|
Some 87% of the students studying offshore are resident in countries outside of the EU. In the four years from 2008/09, the number of students studying offshore grew by 54%.7
Overseas campuses (known as offshore) have on occasions attracted adverse comment. Plans for the development of overseas campuses have, in a number of cases, lead to difficulties for the institution. There have been instances where the governing body has not been fully sighted as to the development and associated risks involved.
Franchise and validation
Overseas campuses represent a small proportion of the total offshore activity, with validation and franchise arrangements being more common. With a franchise arrangement the student is registered at the UK institution, but taught by the institution’s partner on a programme designed by the UK institution. Under a validation arrangement the student is again taught by a partner institution, but is not registered with the UK institution. The student’s achievement of the local qualification is validated by the UK provider in terms of one of its own qualifications.
The selection of international partners to work with is an important consideration when considering quality assurance and the associated reputational risks.
Institutions are responsible for the academic standards of their awards delivered inside or outside of the UK. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) reviews partnership arrangements made with organisations in others countries to deliver UK programmes, and also reviews delivery on overseas campuses. In the past some of its reports relating to overseas provision have been highly critical.
Questions to consider
End notes and further reading
Associate Director, Governance
Aaron Porter was appointed as Associate Director, Governance at the Leadership Foundation (LF) in January 2014. He is also a higher education consultant and a freelance journalist, having previously been president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2010 – 2011. He is also an associate for the LF and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), on the advisory network for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and CFE research and consultancy alongside a number of other portfolio roles.
During his high profile term at NUS, he was the first NUS President to be invited as an observer to the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and to address the annual Universities UK Conference in September 2010. In addition he served as a non-executive director on the boards of UCAS, the HEA and Endsleigh Insurance. He also co-chaired the Beer/Porter Student Charter group which reported to Higher Education Minister David Willetts in January 2011, and was a member of the Hefce Online Learning Taskforce and the review of External Examiners chaired by Dame Janet Finch both conducted in 2010/11.
Previous to his term as NUS President, Aaron served two successful terms as NUS Vice-President (Higher Education), helping to build NUS’ reputation with the sector. He also served as a non-executive board member for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) and on the board of the European Students’ Union (ESU). He was also a member of the Burgess Implementation Steering Group and the National Student Survey Steering Group. In 2009, he was part of the UK delegation to the European higher education ministerial summit in Leuven, Belgium.
Aaron studied BA English at the University of Leicester and graduated in 2006. He then spent two years as a sabbatical and trustee of the students’ union, he was also the founding chair of Unions94 (the students’ unions of the 1994 Group). As a student he was editor of the student newspaper, ‘The Ripple’.
Governance Web Editor
David Williams is Governance Editor for the LF website. He has over 25 years experience of working in higher education, as both as an academic and senior manager. During this time he has worked closely with governing bodies, contributing to, and supporting their work
in a variety of ways.
As Governance Editor, David works with the wider LF community and its members to ensure the governance website offers a repository of information and signposts recent developments in the field on governance.