If there’s one area where Britain leads the world, it’s higher education. Small in size compared to the ‘mighty’ USA, the UK usually has four entries (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL) in the world’s top 15 universities.
Take a look at the current Times Higher Education World University Rankings top 15:
- University of Oxford
- California Institute of Technology
- Stanford University
- University of Cambridge
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Harvard University
- Princeton University
- Imperial College London
- ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
- University of California, Berkley
- University of Chicago
- Yale University
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of California, Los Angeles
- University College London
While we’ve so far been leading the EU when it comes to higher education, things are about to change. The UK has a highly successful track record of exporting our skills to the rest of the world, but how can we adapt to the new post-Brexit landscape?
From Empire to partnership education model
In the ‘bad old days’, the export of education was based on the ‘Empire’ model, under which lucky members of the world’s ruling classes were allowed to study in England, returning home to rule their lands in imitation of Britannia. Returning graduates ensured their elite schools were modelled on our ours and used exams set and marked by our examination boards. This brought some money, influence and a lot of repeat business.
In recent decades, rising nations like China send many more students here, but the real expansion has been in overseas campuses and partnership. These enable many more to study the UK way without the difficulty of obtaining a place or a visa, and without the expense of a stay in the UK. This directly helps the finances of our prestigious institutions and indirectly helps the UK economy.
In a typical deal, Midlands Municipal University signs an agreement to help the Chinese Technology University set up a joint institution in China where land, labs and fee-paying students are provided by the Chinese. Municipal Uni provides key teaching, using a mix of a ‘flying faculty’ arriving by plane from the UK to teach in intensive blocks, with some UK-trained staff working permanently on site. Students have access to all the best materials, and the online library, etc.
This demand for higher education is being driven by four worldwide factors – let’s take a look at the opportunities linked to demography, globalism, aspiration and technology.
Demography – The youth bulge
India, China, Indonesia and the US will soon together account for over half of the world’s 18-22 year olds. Note the US in this list – a rare Western youth-bulge country. This will give the US a large domestic base which is something the UK can’t replicate and the sheer size and number of US campuses means the US brand can reach further into more local education markets. Many countries are not only seeking long-distance educational partners, but regional partners too.
What does this mean for the UK? We can spread our risks by working together in regions. Truly expert non-teaching staff with close knowledge of a country are at a premium and it will make sense to share some marketing and non-teaching tasks, not to cut costs but to share regional and country expertise and so mitigate risks.
Intriguingly, students from outside the UK often put a higher premium on studying abroad as part of their degree than those in the UK. German universities, in particular, have a desire to become more international; they are trying to get many more of their own students to have an international experience, and this will lead to more programmes abroad too.
Germany has noticed the positive effect that London’s role as an international financial, tech, academic and creative centre has brought, and key cities like Munich and Frankfurt are already trying to weave the same magic. This includes projecting themselves overseas, in big markets, using education and research. The UK could do well to encourage more of its own students to study abroad… not only would this would help to forge global links it would also allow British universities to learn from innovations in other countries.
Students, and their parents, have a strong desire to equip themselves for a prosperous and fulfilling future in a global world, able to move easily to the biggest and best cities for work and personal reasons. Visas and the ability to work after study play a big part in this kind of career planning. The cultural welcome offered by the UK is a big part of its overseas offer. Offering an overseas campus needs to be backed by opportunities to study in and visit the UK.
University faculties here will also want to capture some of the very best talent for their home research programmes and prestige. We’ll want to keep the doors open to international students, alongside keeping a close eye on changes in currency rates and overseas political risks. Aspirations can change too, and any offer overseas needs to stay very well attuned to its marketplace.
Technology: The big disruptor
As what was once called the ‘developing world’ comes fully online, with smartphones and internet access reaching the masses, it is possible for billions to have access to most of the world’s information and knowledge. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are just one example. Oxford University began its first MOOC in Economics in February. There will be thousands of other ways of learning, with a range of approaches that can be tailored to suit individual needs.
This means that the value of a ‘UK-branded’ education will rest more and more on the student experience, the skills acquired, the networking, the prestige and the employability training rather than the pure degree knowledge. The world of work is changing fast and technology is opening up new ways to study. The challenge for British universities will be to take on board the benefits of new technology whilst maintain their unique student experience.
Welcome to the world of University TripAdvisor
As the world gets richer and the number of young people increases, especially those with global ambitions, there is every reason to expect that UK universities (and professional institutions) will be able to sell our educational expertise very widely. We just need to avoid complacency and stay clever and agile at doing so.
It won’t be enough to have the smartest faculty, doing the best research and teaching. We’ll have to be the smartest at meeting students’ needs in a myriad of fast-changing forms, many of them related to local circumstances. And in the world of TripAdvisor and instant user feedback, that means changing faster than ever before!