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Vivienne Stern, UK Higher Education International Unit

Director of The UK Higher Education International Unit, Vivienne Stern, has bold ambitions to evolve the IU brand. She talks to The PIE about her plans to invest in scholarships, promote outbound mobility and influence policy further to promote UK universities internationally.

The PIE: Tell me about your role and the functions of the IU.

"We have to make sure that we put energy into preserving that reputation for quality"

VS: I’m the Director of the UK Higher Education International Unit. Our job is to represent UK universities internationally and help them meet their international aims. We broker sector-level agreements – as in the case of Science without Borders; influence policy in the UK and overseas and we provide excellent access to information and expertise for those who work in UK universities.

We have a particular focus on creating opportunities for international staff in universities to get together to learn from each other – through our Communities of Practice; expert-led seminars and programmes like Go International, which encourages UK students to study abroad and HE Global, which supports transnational education.

Finally we create opportunities for our universities to meet counterparts and potential partners overseas. For example in the next few months we will take outward delegations to India and Indonesia to meet university leaders and government figures there, and welcome delegations from India, Chile, and Mexico to the UK.

“In the next few months we will take outward delegations to India and Indonesia to meet university leaders and government figures there”

The PIE: How is the IU funded? 

VS: We are part of Universities UK. However, most of our grant funding currently comes from government, via the four national funding councils for higher education – HEFCE, the SFC, HEFCW and DELNI. We also receive funding from Guild HE and from the QAA and Higher Education Academy. Over the last few years we have started to take on some major contracts to deliver scholarship schemes for other governments – including the Brazilian Science without Borders programme.

The PIE: Tell me about your plans to evolve the perception of the IU, especially for stakeholders overseas.

VS: The UK university sector is one of the best in the world. But we’re in danger of losing ground in terms of the way we are perceived, particularly in some fast developing countries like India. Our competitors have got their acts together, bringing government agencies and other bodies to pull in the same direction. The UK can seem a bit disjointed and disorganised by comparison – with lots of organisations all working in their own ways to support universities – it can be confusing for universities let alone overseas partners. It doesn’t help that while one part of government supports universities internationally, another part seems hell-bent on making it more difficult to attract students to study here.

Even if we can’t change all the things about visa policy that we might like to see changed – we can do a better job of co-ordinating the things we do to promote UK universities overseas, and support them at home. Together we’ve been putting a huge amount of effort into working out how the bits of the jigsaw fit together: the IU, the British Council, UKTI, the embassy network and the research councils. We’re seeing some really positive results.

I want the IU to play a clear role – representing universities and acting on their behalf  – complementing and adding value to what other bodies do rather than cutting across them.

The PIE: You’ve often said that despite regulatory changes and challenges for the sector, it’s an exciting time for UK HE. Can you expand on that?

VS: One of the things that strikes me in the many opportunities I get to talk to representatives from governments around the world is how much appetite there is for working with UK universities in countries where we really don’t have well established links. And how much goodwill there is towards UK universities. The kind of statements people make about the quality of our HE sometimes make me feel slightly sheepish, they’re so effusive!

“There are people in influential positions around the world who have experienced UK HE and loved it”

I was speaking to somebody from the Turkish Embassy recently and he talked about how he’d seen the quality of the UK HE system with his own eyes. And that kind of things makes you think, oh gosh we’re so lucky, we’ve got something we should be genuinely proud of. And I think we have to be very careful of that reputation, we have to mean it, we have to make sure that we put energy into preserving that reputation for quality.

The reality is there are people in influential positions around the world who have experienced UK HE and loved it and there are ambassadors out there, and I think that’s brilliant. And then there’s some new appetite in the UK government for backing universities up in their international activities. So for me it seems like a great moment to be involved in this.

The PIE: What could the UK do better in terms of promoting its offer to international students?

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