How Big Money Turned British Universities Into Global Brands

You can now study at the University of Nottingham while basking in the Malaysian sun.

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Aug 24 2016, 12:00am

The University of Nottingham, Malaysia campus

The road to Nottingham University is lined with palm trees. Behind the trees, across a carefully manicured lawn and an ornamental lake, sits the university's gleaming white campus headquarters. On the other side of the road is a series of newly constructed luxury apartments, built to house the university's students, set against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky. If this all sounds a long way from the East Midlands, that's because it is.

Nottingham opened its Malaysia campus in 2000, the first UK university to launch a branch campus overseas. Four years later, the university opened a China campus in Ningbo. Where Nottingham led the way, many others have followed. Just as Manchester United is recognised around the world as the home of top-flight football, many UK universities have become global brands, offering degrees to students around the world who never need to get on a plane.

According to a study by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, in 2012, UK universities were operating 25 overseas campuses in 12 countries. They included a branch of Newcastle University in Singapore, a Middlesex University campus in Mauritius and an outpost of the University of Westminster in Uzbekistan.

"UK universities are among the most international in the world," says Daniel Shah, assistant director of policy at Universities UK International. "Transnational education helps UK universities reach more students, but in most cases it's about universities building partnerships with overseas institutions to give students the benefits of a high quality UK education closer to home." John Fielden, a higher education consultant at CHEMS Consulting, puts it more bluntly: "It's basically because of the tremendous competition at home to get international students and the realisation that there is a market for UK degrees in the students' home countries."

The University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China

International campuses are just part of this story. Higher education is now a major British export industry, bringing in billions of pounds to the UK economy every year. Many universities offer degrees through partnership arrangements with local providers or through franchising arrangements. Online courses are another popular option. Oxford Brookes University is by far the largest provider, with 280,055 international students registered on its Applied Accounting degrees. Even excluding this number, in 2013/14 there were 382,610 students involved in transnational education with UK universities, an increase of 13.4 percent from just two years before.

The extent to which Britain has captured the global higher education market is reflected in the range of countries in which you can gain a UK degree. In 2014/15, the top 10 countries with the most students on UK transnational education courses included Malaysia, China, Oman, Sri Lanka, Greece and India. A report by HE Global published in June of this year found there are only 15 countries in the world where the UK does not offer higher education services. Two out of five transnational education students are on Business and Management courses. Social Studies and Law courses are the second most popular, accounting for one student in every five.

There are several reasons for this rapid expansion. John Quirk, director of the international office at Nottingham University, says overseas campuses allow UK students an opportunity to study abroad while drawing on the experience and knowledge of staff and students based overseas. "From our perspective, it's critical because it gives you a global footprint. It means it's not just one-way traffic," he says, adding that the university's international strategy promotes "academic endeavour and the cross-fertilisation of ideas".

Increasingly, an international presence and diversity among staff and students is seen as an indication of quality. Louise Simpson is director at the World 100 Reputation Network, a professional body for reputation managers at universities around the world. "British universities need to recruit international students both from a financial point of view and also from a reputational point of view," she says. "The more international you are, the more diverse you are, and the more highly regarded you are. It's a marker of both cultural diversity and intellectual diversity if you can attract international students."

It's also big business. A 2014 government study found revenue to UK universities from transnational education totalled £495.8 million. John Fielden was one of the report's authors. He says there are reputational and research benefits from international expansion, but most institutions have a financial incentive as well. International students have long been an important source of revenue for UK universities. While Britain is one of the most popular destinations in the world for international students, second only to the US, the numbers travelling from abroad to study here have plateaued in recent years – a trend attributed by Fielden to Home Office restrictions on visas, greater competition and the cost of studying abroad.

As the government ramps up tuition fees at home, it's also calling on universities to ramp up their fee-earning potential abroad. In June of 2012, then Universities and Science Minister David Willetts gave a speech in which he called for investment to expand the sector, and said: "Our universities are internationally-recognised: they are a great British brand." According to HE Global: "The higher education sector is regarded as one of the UK's most important export earners for the UK economy – and internationalisation has become a major priority for all UK universities and the UK government alike."

Nottingham University now has more than 14,000 students enrolled at its overseas campuses, compared to 10,000 international students based in the UK. Four out of five UK universities say they will be expanding their transnational education programmes in the next three years. As the sector expands, perhaps there's an overlooked upside. International fees for courses at Nottingham's Malaysia campus start at just 30,280 Ringgit – equivalent to around £5,800 a year. As annual tuition costs in Britain edge closer to £10,000, it doesn't look like much to pay for a UK degree and a few years in the sun.

@mark_wilding

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