The internationalisation of higher education is a priority issue for governments worldwide. By leveraging the reputation and expertise of their universities, administrations seek to raise their respective national profiles and remain at the forefront of an increasingly competitive knowledge economy. The development of national education brands such as Education UK, New Zealand Educated, and Study in Korea all testify to a desire to attract high-calibre students for both their economic and intellectual contributions to the host country.
Universities around the world, acknowledging the reality of the competition, are vying to attract students by such means as rankings, “star” academics, targeted scholarships, and better student support.
UK universities currently host nearly 390,000 overseas students, a growth of one-third at undergraduate level and one-quarter at postgraduate level over the past five years. Meanwhile, the US recently reported the presence of more than 670,000 international tertiary-level students, which is a record figure for the country. The “300,000 international students plan”, launched by former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, aims to more than double the number of overseas students in Japan by 2020.
What should not be overlooked, however, is the fact that reducing higher education to a commodity, and its providers to competitors, decreases the sector’s impact. There is now more need than ever to build on established strengths in cross-border collaboration. The world’s most knowledgeable and innovative minds should together tackle pressing global issues such as climate change, poverty and the emergence of new epidemics.
The UK government has acknowledged the risk of a purely market-oriented approach. Higher Ambitions, the November 2009 framework for higher education published by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, states that “Although international students represent an important source of income for universities, the international activities of our higher education institutions cannot be primarily motivated by commercial self-interest, or they will wither”.
Indeed, the second Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education (PMI2), launched in 2006, widened the official focus beyond student recruitment to encompass partnership building.
Many UK universities are already moving in this direction. According to a recent British Council survey of 87 UK institutions of higher education, the overwhelming majority are looking beyond student recruitment: 47% combine this with other activities including international partnerships, while 39% have a holistic international strategy that aims to embed an international culture throughout the institution.
Innovative UK-Japan partnerships
The Japanese government has supported its universities in establishing international links through a range of funding initiatives, the most recent of which is the Global 30 project. It is expected that participating universities will become “internationalisation hubs” by establishing new degree programmes taught in English (providing increased options for short-term exchange students); setting up additional overseas offices; and hiring more foreign staff. The first 13 participants were announced in July 2009. Since the DPJ government has frozen funding for the programme next fiscal year, there will be no additional financial backing in fiscal 2010.
Several UK and Japanese univer-sities have already developed innovative strategic partnerships. The University of Brighton and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (TUAT) have an agreement to help each other’s spin-off firms develop business ideas in their home markets; Brighton has also provided English-language training for TUAT’s administrative staff. Kingston University and Kyoto Seika University have developed an initial small-scale grant for research exchange into a broad collaboration including exhibitions, symposia and performances involving staff and students from both universities.
The University of Sheffield has opened a centre devoted to research and teaching on the campus of Doshisha University.
At the British Council Japan, we have helped nurture such partnerships through symposia for university leaders, administering PMI2-funded exchanges and, most recently, sending staff from the international divisions of 13 Japanese universities to visit five universities around the UK in order to exchange ideas with their counterparts.
The intersection of demographic, economic and societal changes is making it harder for overseas universities to recruit here. At the same time, Japan remains a world leader in research and shares many areas of interest with the UK, such as biosciences and green technology. Strategic university partnerships look set to play an increasingly important role in the bilateral relationship.