In a keynote speech at the Goldman Sachs-Stanford University Global Education Conference in California last week, Willetts said UK higher education could achieve more worldwide, and demand from the developing world offered significant growth opportunities.
“Our universities are well-financed for what they do but under-financed for big expansion,” he said.
“I want to see investors from Britain and abroad helping our universities access these big overseas markets. I know that companies like Goldman Sachs who have organised this conference today are keen to investigate this possibility.”
He noted that UK branch campuses and twinning arrangements that have flourished worldwide
The speech comes as the government encourages UK universities to find new ways of generating income in a period of fiscal constraint, while trying to stimulate the economy.
Willetts said that there were few sectors with “the capacity to grow and generate export earnings as great as higher education”, and emphasised the £8billion contribution made by international students coming to the UK last year.
He said Britain would serve a growing number of students in the UK – a point over which he is said to be at odds with Minister for Immigration Damian Green – but highlighted opportunities offshore.
“Overseas students traveling to the UK to study is just one way we can grow. Last year 400,000 overseas students came to the UK to study.
“But for the first time this was exceeded by the record 500,000 people who benefited from British higher education whilst living abroad,” he said, noting that UK branch campuses and twinning arrangements have flourished worldwide.
“We welcome new start-ups, and international institutions with experience abroad”
As part of a drive to level the playing field between private and public providers in UK HE, Willetts also invited more overseas providers to set up in the UK. The majority of foreign universities operating in the UK are American.
“There are many ways an alternative provider can enter our system,” Willetts said. “We welcome new start-ups and international institutions with experience abroad. Or an existing university might set up a commercial subsidiary aimed for example at the overseas market.”