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Anthony Forster, Vice-Chancellor, University of Essex

 With 20 years of experience in academic leadership positions in five universities, Anthony Forster has a longstanding commitment to ensuring excellence in education and research benefits individuals and communities. The vice-chancellor of the University of Essex spoke to The PIE about post-Brexit internationalisation, the institution’s partnership with Kaplan and the need to achieve a truly diversified student intake.


Photo: University of Essex

"We're a university with 40% of our students coming from outside the UK"

The PIE: The University’s partnership with Kaplan won the PIEoneer Award in the public/private partnership of the year category. Can you tell us more about it? 

Anthony Forster: The partnership with Kaplan started in 2007/8 and now has three legs. The first was Open Learning Kaplan that has close to 2,000 students registered. It’s an online degree program where we’re working hand-in-glove with Kaplan as the partner delivering that (the Gold TEF online platform in the country).

So we’re really proud of that relationship and how we’re scaling it up.

We have a relationship with Kaplan through Kaplan Singapore, where we’re providing degrees in Singapore, in a variety of subject areas, so this partnership is seen in the context of those other two legs.

The PIE: There’s a lot of discussion about how post-Brexit internationalisation is going to work, some say brick and mortar, some say online, others, though fewer, say, TNE is the way forward. But you seem to have gone for all three of those – so why was the international college added to those other options?

AF: From a University of Essex point of view, we’ve given some really serious thought to ‘what does internationalisation mean?’

“Global Britain is going to be a really important part of our future”

We’re a university with 40% of our students coming from outside the UK, 30% of our staff [too]… from one aspect, student recruitment, we’re doing very well indeed. But we see internationalisation as not just being about student recruitment, but actually about global reputation, about creating graduates who are global citizens – who are going to go out into the world and make it a better place.

And we’ve had some very particular strategies that we’ve been pursuing over a number of years. The online degree platform is a really important part of that. We don’t recruit significantly in Singapore, that’s a really important part of the world where we want to have a full relationship.

We’re absolutely clear we don’t want bricks and mortar in another country, but we’re also clear that we do want to invest in brick and mortar on our UK campuses, in promoting the internationalisation agenda.

We’ve got the facilities at Essex, the reputation, a fabulous partner that we’ve had a long-term relationship with, and one we feel comfortable with taking a significant risk in opening an international college at this particular moment in time.

“We see internationalisation as not just being about student recruitment”

The investment… is about £1m in restoring a historic building, to really put our money where our mouth is. Irrespective of how people feel about Brexit, how they voted, ‘Global Britain’ is going to be a really important part of our future. And we see this as one particular contribution that we’re making to that agenda.

The PIE: Given you have all three of the available options, was there ever a conversation about if this was actually a good thing? Was there ever a thought that growth should maybe not be so fast? 

AF: I’ve been working with Linda [Cowan, MD of Kaplan ***] since I was appointed vice chancellor in 2012, I think we’re very keen to recruit our fair share of talented students, and we’ve got a growth strategy to grow the university by about 50% from our baseline in 2012 to 2019.

We’ve actually exceeded that growth as we’re now at 58% on the baseline of 2012. And we’re keen to grow the university on to about 20,000 students by 2025.

Within that frame of the aspirations of the university, there are all sorts of reasons why we want to grow, but… what we wanted to do was really try and understand what students would like to do. Some would like to stay in their home countries and would like to have a face-to-face experience through the sort of provision we’ve got with Kaplan Singapore. Some students would like the online platform and explore the full range of possibilities and flexibility that provides. And some actually want to come to the UK and enjoy the physical environment of being on a campus like this for three or four years, with all the benefits of not only the learning experience but also the extra-curricular experiences of clubs, societies, volunteering…

The PIE: How are you going to offer this range of opportunities?

AF: I think what we’re doing is trying to open up more opportunity and really match the sort of aspirations and expectations students might have. And I’m not sure we want to choose on their behalf. We want to create opportunity and then let them make the choice as to what suits them best. What we’ve done very effectively with the Kaplan team, across all of the different types of provision, is make sure what we’re offering is something equivalent in terms of quality and standards, but different.

That’s why I’m so proud the online program is TEF Gold. That’s why I make the effort to go out to all the graduations because I want to show this is an important part of the Essex offer that we’re making to students who might not physically be able to come to the UK.

One of the really powerful things that I experienced when I went to the Kaplan Singapore graduation was to hear the different stories of students who would absolutely have never had the opportunity to come and study in the UK but were desperate to make sure they were on a ladder to higher education.

And I’m really pleased we can offer up that opportunity without us having to predetermine what the right choice is for students.

The PIE: How do these three options increase diversification? Is that a goal behind the triple-pronged approach?

AF: We are self-consciously a globally-orientated international, cosmopolitan university. And we work really hard to make sure we have a really diversified student intake. We’re very conscious that we’re offering a UK education, in an international context, and we want to make sure that when students come to the UK that they do feel that they’re getting that UK-based education, and not just an education based in an international university that might be anywhere.

“We’re very conscious that we’re offering a UK education, in an international context”

And that’s been really important to us actually, in managing that, in making sure we recruit from a wide variety of places, not just in China. And in the university as a whole, we have students coming from about 130 different nationalities, and about 7.5% come from China, but a significant number of our students are coming from other parts of the world as well.

Seeing as Essex has been in the space of internationalisation for a very long time, since its foundation, we actually have a very strong reputation in a variety of different regions in the world, including South America, Scandinavia, central and eastern Europe, Malaysia, and the Middle East.

So, certainly not a university which has a focus on one region of the world, but one that’s working very hard to make sure we have the sort of international links that is so important to the type of education that we offer.



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