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David Pilsbury, Coventry University, UK

Deputy vice-chancellor (International Development) at Coventry University David Pilsbury leads on international engagement through the International Office, Academic Partnership Unit and Centre for Global Engagement.  The PIE spoke to him about Coventry’s journey over the last 12 years, its plans to set up campuses abroad and the exciting new ways transnational education is being reimagined.


David Pilsbury. Photo: The PIE News/ Laurie Noble

"We are well advanced in our plans to open a campus in China"

The PIE: How did you get involved in the university sector? 

David Pilsbury: I guess my approach is different because I didn’t come up through the normal academic route, though I did get a grounding in the academic endeavour as I spent almost 10 years running the Worldwide University Network, an association of major research universities.

WUN was a fantastic experience and was about addressing the real problems: building research programs in areas of global significance like climate change through collaboration with overseas centres of excellence where unless you’re a truly elite university with strategic reserves, you are dependent on project grant funding.

“When I joined Coventry, there was no international vision and isolated pockets of international activity”

Before this, I was at Higher Education Funding Council for England as head of research policy – it was a great time and we really felt we were working with and in support of the sector.

The PIE: Tell me about your time at Coventry and Coventry’s journey over the last decade. 

DP: When I joined Coventry, there was no international vision and isolated pockets of international activity. We had a very modest number of international students at that point, just over a thousand and in fact, the year before I joined the number of international students had declined.

So for me, that was a fantastic opportunity to build something that was of scale and of scope, that was sophisticated and sustainable and really engaged people. That was the exciting thing about joining Coventry.

It was not exactly a greenfield site – there were some fantastic people there, but they were not working together in pursuit of a plan. One of the reasons why we’ve managed to develop such a fantastic platform in Coventry is that I was able to work early on with half a dozen really key people initially and then we broadened out engagement and developed the international structures and comprehensive international platform that means global now runs through everything we do.

That engagement of staff across the whole of Coventry is what makes us the leaders in the field.

The PIE: So it was a real team effort to get Coventry to where it is today.

DP:  I’m a real believer in the view that if you get half a dozen great people together then you can change the world. Certainly in Coventry, there were people like Judy and Don Finlay with whom I worked in China and Jean Bernard Adrey who headed our mobility and enhancement push and we began that journey together.

To begin with, international was a very marginal activity and, it was done on a fairly transactional basis. But, you know, we delivered the goods.

When I started, I wanted Coventry to be the modern university equivalent of Nottingham, for which I have real respect – they clearly set out a store to be truly global and have stuck with it and in my view reaped the benefits. 

“That engagement of staff across the whole of Coventry is what makes us the leaders in the field”

The PIE: And today, how has that vision for Coventry become a reality?

DP: Now, Coventry, I think, is really differentiated around its international engagement. I don’t see any other university that has that scale and scope of international engagement that runs across recruitment where we’re number three with almost 10,000 overseas students, collaborative delivery where we’re number one, mobility where we’re number one, global enhancement where we’re number one globally.

And with some other really great developments, you know, like our London campus, which is the number one campus in London from any regional university, as far as I’m concerned. 

The PIE: Coventry has plans to open campuses abroad. Can you tell me a bit about your thoughts on transnational education? 

DP: We are well advanced in our plans to open a campus in China. It is a really fantastic proposal, very innovative and  one that has come out of really deep collaboration with our Chinese partner.

We are waiting for the Chinese authorities to come back to us on our submission, but of course we make no assumptions about whether it will get approved or not so there is still some way to go. 

We have also been working in Indonesia for several years and are really excited about the opportunities to contribute to the rapidly increasing needs to high-quality relevant programs delivered collaboratively with our in-country partner. I am really interested in the opportunities that these sort of developments provide to re-imagine TNE.

The PIE: Can you share some ways TNE is being ‘re-imagined’?

DP: Well these sort of developments create opportunities for the delivery of co-created educational programs that are fit for the situation and which takes advantage of the context, the academic infrastructure, the IT infrastructure, partnerships with employers, the relationship with regulators, reflects the needs of the student population and the needs of the industry.

“The really sad thing is that Covid has gotten everybody excited about TNE, but they’re trying to do the TNE of 10 years ago”

There is an understanding of how to create value from what is there rather than imposing what we have in the UK – and how to meet those needs in new ways – that kind of TNE is really exciting.

There are some people doing that. I mean, we’re doing it, the University of Arizona is doing it with its micro-campuses. And there are a few other people that have got a good sense of where TNE is going.

I think the really sad thing is that Covid has got everybody excited about TNE, but they’re trying to do the TNE of 10 years ago rather than thinking about what TNE needs to look like in 10 years time. 

The PIE: What is in store for Coventry in a post-Covid world?

DP: We still have plenty of road to travel on TNE and global enhancement. Alongside that, I’m really interested in sharpening the proposition for Coventry and other UK universities so that we continue to attract those students that want to study in the UK.

I believe that those numbers will come back because the UK has this readily accessible unique mix of characteristics around world-class education, a world-class cultural offering, extensive and sophisticated industrial ecosystem and it is a tolerant, welcoming, multicultural country. There’s nowhere else quite like that.

The PIE: How has Coventry been harnessing technology to give students an international experience during the pandemic, and how are students adapting to that?

DP: We know the Chinese student numbers are significantly down because they really value the international experience; they want to be immersed in a global educational environment and I want to focus on how we can use the real world and virtual world tools available to develop that and address the increasing constraints of time and geography.

We have this initiative in Coventry where we put academics in Coventry in touch with academics in partner institutions and support them using whatever platform they think is helpful.

It could be Whatsapp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, to explore issues around global perspectives within the curriculum context. So the technology’s not leading, the technology is supporting. 

The latest development of this – which predates Covid-19 because it grew out of concerns around climate change – is virtual mobility and we have a virtual world tour that is proving very popular. It’s used currently as an alternative to physical mobility but also in future as a way to ensure that physical mobility really delivers the experiential returns that justify the carbon footprint associated with the trip. 

The PIE: What is recruitment going to look like for Coventry University in the future? 

DP: Aggregator platforms are going to be a big part of it and the other thing that’s going to happen is a step change in the sophistication of customer relationship management – CRMs – within UK universities.

The issue is not putting them in, but using them properly and both driving and supporting cultural change.  It was the International Office that put the need for a CRM onto the table in Coventry and I’m delighted that the university has embraced that and is putting in Salesforce, and that’s not about it being a sales tool, but about being able to manage the student journey from somebody who shows interest through to enrolment.

“Before Covid-19, we were supporting 7,000 students travelling overseas each year”

Ultimately we all want to get that student to the right place and yes, there is a lot of competition for students, but one of the reasons that Coventry has been so successful is that we always have the students best interests at heart.

So alongside a very efficient sales operation, we’ve got the world’s biggest enhancement and student engagement program. Before Covid-19, we were supporting 7,000 students travelling overseas each year. We offer 37 different languages on a peer to peer basis – we have 3,000 students on that and a lot of staff.  Our students – whether home or overseas  – want a global gateway and we seek to provide that opportunity. 

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2 Responses to David Pilsbury, Coventry University, UK

  1. This is a great story of commitment and success. I was very happy to play a small part in this development as the independent university governor at Coventry until 2018 with responsibility for our international portfolio. I worked closely with David and his team particularly in China and was particularly struck always by the excellence and vision that Judy and the late Don Finlay brought to this endeavour. Much of their peerless work was unseen by the university at home and sadly not always properly recognised but it laid the foundations for a key part of Coventrys sustained success as a modern internationally focussed university

  2. Hi, I got an admission with Coventry University but I can’t go because of funds. I wish there is a way to gain a scholarship for further studies at Coventryin the Uk. It would be a miracle indeed!

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