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John Brewer, Chief Executive Officer, NCUK, UK

Having started out as a sports science postgraduate researcher, John Brewer went on to be appointed CEO of university consortium NCUK in October 2019. He spoke with The PIE about his first three months in his new role, how the political climate has impacted student interest in the UK and his plans for NCUK’s future.

 

"We've got over 70 accredited study centres on five continents delivering our qualifications at the moment"

The PIE: What drew you to the international education sector?

John Brewer: I did my postgraduate studies and worked at Loughborough and then carried on as a research scientist in the area of sport and exercise science. So, I’ve always had a sort of academic involvement in the work that I’ve done, even though the early part of my career was very much in the commercial sector.

In 2009, the opportunity came to move from the commercial sector back into academia as a professor and as the head of department at the University Bedfordshire. I’ve always enjoyed helping people become the best that they can be.

“There is a big philanthropic role to what NCUK does”

As a sports scientist, I enjoyed helping people change their training or change their diet to improve their performance. So, being in academia and helping people, that was something that very much appealed to me.

I then took on a similar role at St Mary’s University, eventually going on to become the pro vice-chancellor for Global Engagement. I was very much involved in growing the number of international students and expanding St Mary’s offering to international students.

From there, I had a period as Deputy vice-chancellor at Bucks New University, before the opportunity came to join NCUK.

The PIE: Can you tell me about NCUK and how it helps international students find success?

JB:  Well, NCUK effectively provides the opportunity for young people overseas who don’t have the traditional qualifications to gain the qualifications that are required to get access to one of our many partner universities. Through our global network of quality-assured study Centres, who deliver our qualifications, students have the opportunity to advance both their academic and English language skills, but perhaps more importantly, build the confidence needed to succeed at university.

That is done in a way that provides a genuine, high-quality international foundation year qualification, first or second year credit or entry to a master’s qualification, which, if the students attain that qualification successfully, allows us to work with them to get them a place in one of our partner universities.

The PIE: Of course, there is a financial model that underpins the work that you do?

JB: Yes, because we are a business and of course we have to pay staff and generate income. But we gift up our surplus back to our founding member charity, the Northern Consortium, who then use this surplus to further enable people to broaden international opportunities.

This might be through scholarships or bursaries to bring international students into the UK or funding that the charity would use for students or staff in the UK to go study and teach overseas. Last year, they funded a number of WP students to go on short study abroad visits.

So, there is a big philanthropic role to what NCUK does. We are not here simply to make a profit for shareholders or to pay large sums of money to the staff. We are here to broaden access to international education.

The PIE: Having been with the company for a few months now, have you noticed any changes in the popularity of the pathway model? Are pathways as popular as ever?

JB: I think it’s getting more popular in many ways. I was out in China last month, where the demand for pathway education is enormous. So I think if you look at the global market that there is a huge opportunity to provide more pathway education opportunities.  

I’m particularly keen as well that we look at pre-masters opportunities because I think students who’ve already gained undergraduate qualifications internationally will have that extra maturity that will perhaps equip them to come into the UK or one of our partner countries to get a master’s qualification. 

“Recruiting more international students is going to be a critical part of the future strategies for universities in the UK”

So I think we are seeing more and more students who see the pathway qualification as an ideal way to come into the UK, particularly the model that we have to study at very high-quality Russell Group universities which are part of our consortium, or even the non-Russell Group universities that provide really great degree opportunities– and very importantly have the opportunity for good employability at the end of the qualification. I think that’s really important as well – there’s something for everyone.

The PIE: Has the current political climate in the UK been impacting student interest either positively or negatively?

JB: I’ve been lucky enough to have sat on the senior leadership team for three universities over the last eight to nine years and one word that has really been prevalent is diversity, not just because of Brexit, but I think it’s also Augar that is really uppermost in the minds of vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors in the UK

If the Augar review is implemented and, for example, the cap on domestic undergraduate fee is reduced from £9,250 to £7,500, many universities will be looking at ways in which they can plug that gap. So, recruiting more international students is going to be an absolutely critical part of the future strategies for universities in the UK if they are going to overcome any reduction in European students as a result of Brexit and any reduction in domestic undergraduate income.

I would see organisations such as NCUK as being in a really prime position to be the solution to many vice chancellor’s problems, which they will be seeing on the horizon with both Brexit and Augar.

The PIE: You mentioned that you were in China recently, and the latest figures have shown a surge in Chinese enrolments in the UK, while the US is experiencing a decline. Did you get the impression that the UK is becoming even more popular while you were there?

JB:  Definitely. If I’m being honest, they’re also looking at Canada, New Zealand and Australia as destinations, while the US is becoming less popular. The UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada are in a very strong position to recruit more Chinese students. The Chinese market is still enormous. And I certainly got the impression that Chinese students, of course, and their families are very league table conscious.

The fact that we are able to have students going into our study centres in China and then having the opportunity to progress from there into some of the best universities in the world is something that is very attractive, not just to the students themselves, but their families who have a big influence on where their offspring study.

We’re conscious the coronavirus is leading to a lot of uncertainty and it’s not clear what impact that will have. Our thoughts are with those impacted and for our staff, colleagues and students.

The PIE: You have been at NCUK for three months now. What are your plans and ambitions for the role?

JB:  I think the most important thing, as I said right from the outset, that I could do as the new chief executive is to come in and listen, meet people and talk to people. And I’ve spent a large proportion of the first couple of months doing that.

Our ambition is to firstly produce a new strategy for the business. We had the first session formulating our new strategy just before Christmas. It will build on the huge success that the organisation has had for over 30 years. But we are going to do it in a very ambitious way, I think, which is to look to greatly increase the number of students who are enrolled in our study centres around the world.

“If we achieve growth but lose quality, then that simply is not the way forward”

We’ve got over 70 accredited study centres on five continents delivering our qualifications at the moment. We want to double the number of students that are studying our qualifications and progressing to our university partners.

We also want to look at increasing the number of opportunities that our students have. So we’ll be looking at more degree opportunities, potentially more university partners, and plans to ensure overall, most importantly, that we retain the quality of the students who are progressing into our universities.

If we achieve growth but lose quality, then that simply is not the way forward, and I’ve said it repeatedly. Whilst we will be keen to achieve growth, we will achieve growth with quality, not dilute the quality of the students that we have. Because if we dilute quality, then that will quickly undermine what is so good about NCUK.

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