Told time and again the value of International students is billions of pounds to the UK economy, that we are the number two destination in the world for foreign students, and that new lucrative markets are emerging, universities are frequently asking first “How shall we get more international students through our doors?” and then “Where shall we go recruiting?”

These are the wrong questions, according to Professor Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council. She believes there are better but harder ones including: “Why do we want to recruit international students?” and “Which countries could we partner to reflect our local or regional export links or the international communities already settled in our area and region?”

The theme of inspiring and challenging universities to put the “why?” at the forefront of their international ambitions and strategies ran through GuildHE’s two day conference on internationalisation – the key outcomes of which you can read more about in last week’s blog post by Alex Bols and Vicky Lewis. A series of expert witnesses urged university leaders to approach it as more than a money spinner – including the ones who nevertheless couldn’t help slipping into the language of markets and business models.

The case study of creating “an international university in rural Shropshire” was a compelling illustration of the theme. Andy Jones, Director of Learning and Teaching at Harper Adams University, highlighted the high levels of care, time, and resources invested in establishing a partnership with Beijing Agricultural College to deliver two degree programmes: a BSc/BSc Hons International Business Management and a BSc/BSc Hons Food Quality with Retail Management.

The courses take up to forty Chinese students per award a year, who follow a foundation year and years one and two in Beijing, and then study year three at Harper Adams. Andy Jones explained numbers are kept small in order to be able to really nurture the Chinese students on campus.

Harper Adams is responsible for the academic standards and quality of learning, and all delivery is in English, even in Beijing. Quality control is highly important and, it was emphasised, that takes a lot of time and effort including sending staff out to Beijing.

The partnership is highly scrutinised by the QAA, according to Andy Jones – a process which he stresses, “Can’t be entered into lightly – rigour is needed and expected.” Harper Adams also has to engage with Beijing’s inspection regime.

There is a clear “why” behind this type of partnership, as Andy Jones explained, and argued it wasn’t just about the money – “I do worry about over emphasising the business model and benefits and overlooking the educational value.” The Harper Adams campus, located in rural Shropshire, is either “idyllic” or “stuck in the middle of nowhere”, depending on your perspective. Many home undergraduates come from relatively closed rural communities and schools lacking diversity. Agricultural industries are increasingly globalised and the Beijing partnership and the presence of Chinese students on campus give the university an international perspective offering both the UK students and university staff a broader view of life beyond the UK rural business.

Andy Jones added, at times engaging staff in the changes intrinsic to this sort of international project can be challenging; and when asked directly, he was equally candid: “I didn’t want to say this ….it is a significant income stream.”

But the story of Harper Adams’ internationalisation made the point powerfully, and was underlined by GuildHE’s Chief Executive, Andy Westwood, that the most successful international partnerships are not about finding the shortest cut to hard cash, “They need to come from the heart and soul of an institution – it’s about knowing who you are and what you are about.”

And, he argued, the hands-on approach to forging and running an international partnership, demonstrated at Harper Adams, where universities resist relying on intermediaries is important to minimising risks to standards and reputation.

There was further pragmatic advice on how to limit risk and maximise success in an international strategy from John Latham, President and CEO at the University of Law. It is worth summarising his four key messages:

  • Manage and use your network to help make a better decision and be prepared to hear something you don’t like. I have been told, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard…”!
  • Embrace skepticism – “non-believers” help improve decisions
  • Ask more questions. If you rush from idea to implementation – that’s a risk; spend time and some money checking and validating – it could save you a lot in the long run
  • Recognise the value of walking away if the decision and strategy isn’t right

There was a reminder to pay attention to how international students feel they are treated and their general satisfaction, or not, with life and learning in UK universities.

Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive at Regent’s University London, warned against complacency and there was general agreement that no ideal and publicly accessible way of capturing international student feedback currently exists.

John Latham urged anyone dissatisfied with league tables or any other measure of performance to use their own data to demonstrate “the return international students will get for their investment”.

The importance of successfully understanding and supporting international students was emphasised by Chief Executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, Dominic Scott, who particularly warned against over-investing staff and resources in compliance with visa and other regulations and neglecting student support.

He highlighted the importance of helping foreign students understand UK ways of learning and teaching; of integration and avoiding “the Chinese students stick with the Chinese” syndrome. Most overseas students won’t now get post–study work in the UK and, in light of that, Dominic Scott called for improvements in employment advice based on good market intelligence on industries in India and China.

The internationalisation of UK higher education is an important and large source of income for UK universities. It would be naive and unrealistic to deny that. But a clear message from many experts is success comes and risks are lowest when an international strategy is underpinned by the right values, motives, and attention to resources.

Is internationalisation a cash cow? It is, but you get your best yield when you treat it as a high maintenance breed.