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UK considers education exports in response to ‘tumultuous times’ 

The UK’s parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for International Trade, Mark Garnier, opened Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum this week claiming the government aims to “harness the power of the UK’s education sector” in future trade deals.

UK, education exportsL-R: Rolf Tarrach, EUA; Ihron Rensburg, University of Johannesburg; Vivienne Stern, UUKi and Allan Goodman, IIE. At an event dominated by talk of education as a trade commodity, Rensburg, urged international educators in the UK to looked beyond economics and market share. Photo: The PIE News

“Universities create their own foreign policy”

Garnier’s comments set the tone for the event that marked a shift in focus for the sector towards education exports beyond Europe as Brexit negotiations loom.

To help the higher education sector thrive, Garner told delegates DIT intends to build on the country’s success in exporting education and has recruited its own HE specialist to “support the sector’s global ambitions”.

“The Department for International Trade will support the sector’s global ambitions”

Without commenting on immigration policy post-Brexit, Garnier instead said the government would support transnational education activities pointing to China, Brazil and Malaysia as countries “where the GREAT campaign is pursuing thousands of export opportunities”.

“Ninety percent of global growth will take place outside of Europe and educators must be open to that,” he said, adding that “education is one of the truly global industries” and the government “won’t be turning its back on our trade partners in Europe”.

Eliciting successful examples of exporting education was Paul Wellings, vice chancellor at the University of Wollongong in Australia where education is the third largest export and there is a clear government mandate to increase offshore enrolments.

Wellings noted education’s prominence in Australia’s 2003 free trade agreement with Singapore. A 2014 bilateral agreement with China also extended the number of Australia’s private HE institutions on the Chinese government’s Jiaoyu Shewai Jianguan Xinxi Wang or “white list” of quasi-approved institutions.

Cooperative research and credit transfer agreements were among ways Wollongong forges agreements with overseas partners, Wellings said.  However, he added the “sticky subjects of student and staff mobility” would be “deal breakers” in any collaboration with UK universities.

In response to how to ensure confidence in higher education’s international activities in communities who might be shunning globalisation, Wellings said Australia has implemented a “sophisticated community strategy that sits alongside the global strategies”.

Robin Grimes, professor at Imperial College London and chief scientific advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, spoke about the role of science in building diplomatic relations. He cited the Fukushima nuclear disaster and Ebola and Zika outbreaks as events resulting in international collaboration through science. And he reminded delegates of government-backed research funds and the UK Science and Innovation Network which work to connect universities with international stakeholders.

“Sticky subjects of student and staff mobility will be deal breakers in any collaboration with UK universities”

Rolf Tarrach, president of the European University Association, also noted the role scientists and researchers have in supporting the value of internationalisation. “We have to fight against Trumpian twitter by having a much closer relationship with society, explaining how we do science…we should do better science and better publishing to defend our way of getting new knowledge.”

In response to how universities should react to the current “tumultuous times”, Allan Goodman, president of the Institute for International Education, offered a perspective from the US.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” he told delegates highlighting the historical resilience of universities during previous uprises of nationalism and said “universities create their own foreign policy”.

Discussions also shifted to existential questions about the future of international higher education in the UK. Vivienne Stern, director of UUKi, pondered how the event’s push for education as a trade commodity would be interpreted by foreign colleagues.

Providing one response, Ihron Rensberg, vice chancellor at the University of Johannesburg warned delegates of the nationalistic tone of the morning’s sessions. “I noted a hankering for a return to the great, hegemonic period of the UK,” Rensburg said. “This turning point provides an opportunity to rethink that idea and look beyond economics and market share.”

Meanwhile, Abdi-Aziz Suleiman, former president of Sheffield Students’ Union and international student from Somalia told educators to show the value of international education to the people who “feel left behind”.

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