Category: Higher education

Is it time for Gilligan II?

“The target for the UK’s market share proposed by the British Council in 2000 was 25% by 2005 – a fantasy figure which just didn’t see the competition coming”

Universities’ international marketing strategies have no doubt grown smarter in the 15 years since an influential report on the subject was published, writes Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading – but as competition stiffens and the challenges facing UK HE change, is it time for a new one?

It’s been 15 years since Professor Colin Gilligan published his report for the British Council on international marketing and student recruitment practices within UK universities. The Gilligan Report challenged UK universities to professionalise their marketing activity and to meet the opportunity of growing international student intakes.
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Vincenzo Raimo is pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading in the UK.

Public-private partnerships and all that

“We are in the midst of a widespread exercise in innovation, adaptability, and resilience”

Dr William Lawton, outgoing Director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), shares some insights on public-private partnerships (PPPs) in higher education in the wake of a successful event on the topic.

‘If PPPs are the answer, what was the question?’ That was one question tackled at the Observatory’s latest conference, ‘The future of public-private partnerships in higher education’, held on 3-4 December at Regent’s University London (incidentally a private but not-for-profit institution). Presentations can be seen here.

Why now? Part of the context is the view, among the new for-profit players, that public-private partnerships in higher education are under-analysed and under-reported. Other parts of the backdrop are international competition, the demand for education by older students, skills deficits in many countries, and funding cuts – all of which render unsurprising the increasing role of private actors in higher education. What may be more surprising is the diversity and sophistication of approaches that now join ‘traditional’ universities and the for-profits.

“International competition, the demand for education by older students, skills deficits and funding cuts all render unsurprising the increasing role of private actors in higher education”

We were reminded a number of times, including by Doug Becker, head of Laureate Education worldwide, that public-private partnerships have long been part of higher education: from catering to computing to payrolls to residences to security services. In this sense, the Observatory and i-graduate – and our parent company Tribal Group – are well-integrated parts of this PPP service-provision scene.

Professor Susan Robertson from Bristol reminded us of the pedigree of public-private partnerships in the 1990s: as a less-in-your-face privatisation after the first (Thatcherite) wave of 1980s privatisation. PPPs, under the label of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), emerged as a way of funding and running public infrastructure projects with private capital. The stated aim was to increase accountability and inject private-sector efficiencies into public spending; the unstated one was to lessen government debt in the public accounts by shifting the debt to future generations. PFI was started by the UK Conservatives but warmly embraced by New Labour. PFI projects emerged in all areas of public service (health, schools, transport, even defence) in the UK, Australia and such jurisdictions of fiscal propriety as Spain, Greece and Ireland.

The brief recap of PFI is worth recounting in order to stress that the business models described by Doug Becker and the other for-profits represented in the conference programme (Kaplan, INTO, Study Group, Navitas and Pearson) were as distant as one can imagine from a political accounting wheeze to make government inefficiency look less inefficient. One intent of the meeting was to evaluate the differences in approach between these companies, but all of their approaches are premised on understanding the cultural gaps between universities and their private partners. They do recognise both the ‘peril and potential’ for traditional universities and actively accommodate the means by which universities must protect their reputations (by controlling student intake, for example).

“These experiments have no time or space for a clumsy dichotomy of ‘public good, private bad’ – or the other way round”

Such awareness and self-awareness was characterised by Bob Hogg from Warwick as ‘institutional emotional intelligence’. Paul Greatrix from Nottingham described how their branch-campus partnerships had infused the university with a profoundly more entrepreneurial culture. What emerged at the conference is that we are in the midst of a widespread exercise in innovation, adaptability, and resilience. These experiments have no time or space for a clumsy dichotomy of ‘public good, private bad’ – or the other way round.

Former Vice-Chancellor Professor Roger King, member of the Higher Education Commission (which in November published its report on the financial sustainability of higher education in England), in fact argued that the public-private dichotomy is meaningless in any case, because the legal status of universities is either that of a person (pre-1992) or ‘quasi-private’ (post-1992). His take on regulation and the appropriateness of ‘risk-based quality assurance’ included the provocative assertion that the new private providers are subject to closer monitoring because of an assumption, at the agencies, that they are less familiar with the regulations and therefore a higher risk. A safer assumption would be that the for-profits know their regulatory environments inside-out. An article based on his presentation is here.

In the UK, knowing your regulatory environment means having to learn new tricks every month. During the conference, the Home Office distributed further proposed changes to a Tier 4 guidance for sponsors document published just the week before. It is not clear precisely what motivated this latest broadside from Croydon but base politics is never far away and it is always just possible that shady practices and non-compliant operators are working to undermine civilisation as we know it. The proposed restrictions on operating pathways arrangements and ‘satellite campuses’ (eg. London branches of UK universities) were so radical as to be interpreted by universities and their private partners as a bewildering attempt to close down these parts of the sector. The dismay was such that it is unlikely to proceed, but Merry Christmas anyway and expect redrafted guidance in January.

“It is always possible that shady practices and non-compliant operators are working to undermine civilisation as we know it”

One delegate claimed that the conference was an important milestone in discussing PPP models and applications, and it was in keeping with the Observatory’s tradition of matching intellectual nourishment and analysis with the how-to approach of practitioners.

The conference closed with a wrap-up of risks and rewards, during which the idea of risk-based quality assurance was challenged, and universities reaffirmed a positive view of the for-profits. The withdrawal of the state from higher education funding in a number of countries does suggest that its ideal as a public good is being challenged. But the PPP responses to a culture of scarcity in fact demonstrate a determination to keep that ideal alive.

Read more coverage of the event on The PIE News.

As student numbers have increased, so too has our reliance on agents

“The fact that most students and universities are satisfied with agents does not mean that activity and relationships are maximised”

Vincenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Reading and Dr Iona Huang, Senior Lecturer, Harper Adams University, share their thoughts on OBHE’s recent report on agent use and what more can be done to support universities to optimise their agent relationships.

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) this week published an incredibly informative report on international student recruitment agents. Many of the findings will not come as a surprise to those working in this area. Agents are vital to universities meeting international student recruitment targets and as student numbers have increased, so too has our reliance on agents. In fact, the OBHE reports that agents are now almost as important as university web sites in students deciding where to study.

But the fact that most students and universities are satisfied with agents, as found by the OBHE, does not mean that activity and relationships are maximised and that UK universities do not have issues with their agent work that needs attention. It is worrying that the OBHE found 20% of UK university relationships with agents to be outside of any formal contract and that where contracts exist 45% do not include any performance measures.

“It is worrying that the OBHE found 20% of UK university relationships with agents to be outside of any formal contract”

Together with Christine Humfrey, special professor in International Higher Education at the University of Nottingham, we will be publishing our own report on UK universities work with international student recruitment agents next month. Like the OBHE we found that almost all UK universities make explicit use of international student recruitment agents to achieve their objectives. But while the British Council, the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK Council for International Student Affairs all provide some guidance on the use of agents, there is very little support for universities on how to ensure their agent activity is utilised safely and to best effect. And unlike the position in some other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there is no national framework or rules governing the way universities work with agents in the UK. Each university which works with agents has its own policies and procedures, framework for relationships and commission rates.

With the support of The British Council and the collaboration of a representative group of universities, including one which claims not to use agents, in-depth interviews, data collection and analysis of university– agent relationships, from the university perspective, were undertaken in 2013 to help better inform the sector’s use of agents and to  share good practice.

“There is very little support for universities on how to ensure their agent activity is utilised safely and to best effect”

Our study reports the view from universities and different approaches adopted to agent relationships.  We found that in most cases more could be done to ensure greater returns on investment in agent relationships while also providing greater protection for universities. Ten recommendations emerged from our research. Adoption of the recommendations will very much depend on an individual institutions risk appetite: how much are they willing to invest (time and money), what sorts of agencies they are happy to contract with and what type of contractual relationships they are prepared to accept.

I contented myself with speculation about rankings…

“The questions in my mind: what do the three main global university ranking compilers do it for? And surely just one small Mojito would be OK?”

Peter Brady, Associate Dean, International at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK, writes on the motives behind the ever-growing number of academic rankings and the temptation to sneak off for cocktails during conferences.

Sitting at a conference around the launch of the THE 100 under 50 in Miami, I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped out to the poolside and had a Mojito – or two. It wasn’t that it wasn’t riveting. But it was 30 degrees outside with blue skies and azure seas, and OK – it wasn’t riveting.

However, one look at the rather efficient young woman beside me, taking notes, photos and earnestly tweeting made me feel ashamed of such a lack of commitment.

Had I known that she was from The PIE I could have sneaked off to the pool, had the Mojito and just read the tweets – although, a slight flaw in that plan, is that I don’t know how to tweet. Nor do I know how to twerk, and in both cases the world is most probably better off.

“Had I known that the efficient young woman tweeting beside me was from The PIE I could have sneaked off to the pool”

So I contented myself with speculation about Rankings. Not the usual – ‘are they any use?’ – as the answer is obvious: no if you are lowly ranked; yes if you are highly.

No, looking at the scale of the pre-launch made me wonder what is in it for the companies compiling the rankings. After all, THE was hosting an event in the same Miami Hotel where Lady Gaga held her New Year’s party.

Thankfully THE’s own Phil Baty had refrained from donning a meat suit, but it wasn’t cheap and THE isn’t a charity.

In the cases of some rankings, it is obvious why they do it. The Chinese University Ranking had some reputational issues, as it was widely reported in the press that universities were able to pay to boost their position in the table. I don’t see a problem with that as long as it is transparent. We would just have a list of universities most willing to bribe someone – not sure what use that would be, but then again I am not sure what use many rankings are.

But assuming that this is unusual, the questions in my mind were: what do the three main global university ranking compilers do it for? And surely just one small Mojito would be OK?

For Shanghai Jiao Tong University, it appears to be straightforward. No hidden agenda. The Chinese government wanted to develop research universities and research centres of excellence. They funded nine universities for this and Shanghai Jiao Tong was one of them.

A professor from the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering decided that it would make sense to be able to benchmark progress against world class universities. And from this, the first global rankings, The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), was born.

It is not surprising, then, that it concentrates entirely on research excellence and is considered by many to be the most transparent.

“It includes measures such as international outlook – whatever that is”

The other two main rankers – I don’t mean Jonathon Ross style ‘rankers’ – rather QS and Times Higher, both have less noble motives.

Both wish to attract interest in their publications and from that generate revenue and enhance their brand.

Both have elements that are non-quantifiable and therefore questioned. QS is considered weakest as it makes extensive use of reputational surveys. Where selected professors are asked to rank universities throughout the world, how likely is it that a professor in one country would know of the overall reputation of all the universities in another?

In the case of THE, it includes measures such as international outlook – whatever that is – and teaching.

But now, despite this, both are spawning ranking-ettes. QS publishes university rankings for Asia, Latin America, and BRICS, and rankings by Faculty by Subject, and Top 50 under 50. And in front of my Mojito-starved eyes, the THE was launching the 100 under 50 for 2014. ‘Why, given the effort involved in compiling these lists, are QS and THE creating so many more?’ I mused.

“Universities are only going to mention rankings that they are doing well in”

Someone more charitable than me may suggest that it was a response to the argument that there are many different types of university and to be more useful there should be comparisons of universities which are similar.

But I don’t think so.

It is quite straightforward. Universities are only going to mention rankings that they are doing well in. So if there are a significant group of Universities who do not do as well in the rankings (such as those under 50), there is not going to be any engagement by them with QS or THE – and thence no revenue.

So the answer was obvious – make a new ranking. At one stroke you have 100 universities that can say they are in the top 100 in the world. All of whom will cite the company that produced the rankings in publications and websites giving free advertising.

And just think about how easy it is to sell space on the website/newspaper/magazine which hosts the list which cites your university as world class!

And as I listened, Phil Baty pointed out that THE would strongly resist the urge to change the age from 50 years. It hit me like the first slurp of cold Mojito in the sunlight – pure genius. Unlike the standard rankings, where year on year there is not a huge amount of movement, and certainly few newcomers, this ranking will be refreshed constantly as universities – like myself – find themselves on the wrong side of the hill that is 50 years old and excluded from the club.

Twelve out of the fourteen UK universities cited in THE’s 2014 list will be 50 in the next few years. So they will drop out if the rankings completely, to have their place taken by completely different universities – all of whom will want to spend money to shout to the world that they are best.

And that is just the UK universities.

So given this, it is unlikely that these companies will stop there. There are so many universities who still haven’t made a top 100 in anything yet – think of the money to be made by the publishers if each and every university could get its place in the sunlight!

So the question I pose to you, dear readers, is what do you think the next world university rankings will be? My suggestion is Top 100 Universities for Management Organisation Janitors Interaction and Theoretical Operations – not because it makes sense but purely for the acronym.

And as for my Mojito, unfortunately I never got it, as the day became more interesting. We began to discuss how the THE could improve the metrics they use in the rankings to make them more useful and I began to muse that having a commercial motivation isn’t always wrong.

The UK does not have a God-given right in the international student recruitment market

“Our bellicose rhetoric and criticism of UK immigration policy is simply picked up and repeated in the press overseas as criticism of the UK and of our universities”

Vincenzo Raimo, director of the international office at The University of Nottingham, writes about how poor lobbying tactics can damage the UK’s reputation abroad, and the complex factors impacting on Indian students’ decision to study in the UK.

Thank goodness the University of East Anglia’s Edward Acton, who said that Home Office rhetoric on immigration was having “a horrible, negative effect” on international student recruitment, is on his way out. But how do we stop other Vice-Chancellors going on about visas as if they’re the only reason numbers are down from India?
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Vincenzo Raimo is pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading in the UK.

We’ve decided to be very transparent in our work with student recruitment agents

Vincenzo Raimo, Director, International Office at the University of Nottingham, UK, writes…

“The value of international students to UK universities is unquestionable and much more than just financial: they help create more diverse and interesting student communities, they help UK students develop a more global outlook and they help UK universities compete with the very best in the world by ensuring our student body, particularly at postgraduate level, is made up of the very best students from around the world.

But the need to bridge income shortfalls has put a great deal of pressure on international student recruiters to bring-in more students and increase income levels.
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Vincenzo Raimo is pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading in the UK.

International student recruitment & the power of agents

At the internationally active University of Nottingham in the UK, Vicenzo Raimo, Director of the International Office, shares his views:

“In an ever more competitive international student recruitment market, UK universities are increasingly relying on the use of student recruitment agents to meet targets. Not only are universities failing to appreciate the full costs of international student recruitment but some are also in danger of failing to meet ethical standards in their work overseas.

Despite the significant increase in international students coming to the UK in recent years I am concerned that as a result of increasing competition and the more difficult environment resulting from the UK government’s changes to visa requirements, recruitment agents have become too powerful and the balance of power between universities and agents has shifted increasingly towards agents.
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Vincenzo Raimo is pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading in the UK.