14 May 2019

How to compete with the global elite

With every new intake, fierce international competition makes recruitment tougher for UK universities. The University of Birmingham is among those adapting to the realities of a globally-mobile academic community.

Britain’s second city is big, bright and buzzing after extensive regeneration. Its university has “a particularly beautiful campus,” according to Robin Mason, Birmingham’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International). Yet in the blisteringly competitive sphere of global education, that’s not quite enough.

Students pondering where in the world to learn often start with global rankings. Only institutions that are highly rated are likely to merit further research about their local surroundings.

“It’s a particular focus now to ensure we appear in the top 100 in what we see as the three main international league tables – because we’re finding that is where students and government sponsors are looking,” Mason says.

Reputational boost

This entails work on several fronts, chiefly to bolster the university’s reputation among worldwide academics and employers. With some league tables breaking down resourcing per student, Birmingham has also invested heavily in extra faculty to improve the student-staff ratio.

Birmingham’s marketing targets countries with the most promising demographics – where the student potential can’t be met by the domestic education system. Like all universities, it also designs programmes around market needs, rather than academic interests.

But the driving force of all this effort is not the higher fees that international students bring, Mason insists. “Our first focus is quality – we simply want the best students, from wherever they come. And a really diverse mix of perspectives and cultural backgrounds in the classroom also benefits learning.”

Talent mobility

The same quality imperative also powers Birmingham’s faculty recruitment. Non-UK academics, drawn from 130 countries, make up 37% of Birmingham’s current team.

Mason points to the rival attractions of countries such as Germany, China and Japan, which have each invested heavily in a core group of research-intensive universities.

“That leads to a real demand for the very best faculty. So each year it gets harder to attract and retain, because there is more mobility of talent than there was a generation ago,” he observes.

One way that Birmingham appeals to staff is by flexing the strength of its research. Some 55% of its research and publications are the result of international collaboration, a proportion that Mason expects to see rise to the 60% that he believes the UK’s best universities achieve.

Each year it gets harder to attract and retain, because there is more mobility of talent than there was a generation ago.

Robin Mason, Birmingham’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International), University of Birmingham

Organic partnership

Research links are bolstered by the university’s strategic partnerships, of which the strongest are with the University of Melbourne and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The latter has spawned exchange partnerships and collaborative teaching arrangements in topics ranging from history of art to railway engineering. With Melbourne, an agreement in 2016 formalised academic links that had already endured for two decades: at any time, Birmingham and Melbourne have 60 active joint projects.

This kind of “organic” development is critical to the success of such partnerships, says Mason. Constant nurturing is required too: “The university leaders change, and academics move on. You have to invest time to maintain the partnership with funding and regular reciprocal visits.”

Unstoppable force

Birmingham’s most recently forged strategic partnership is with Trinity College Dublin. This partly reflects the focus of Birmingham’s reputational campaign, whose chief European targets are Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany.

Minds have been focused by the need to plan for the UK’s exit from the EU. “One of the few good things that has come out of Brexit is that it has forced us to think much more strategically about Europe,” Mason says. “We have also launched a European hub based in Brussels, to act as a focus for academic activities on the continent.”

While he shares the concerns of most further education institutions about Brexit’s potential impact on the sector, Mason is clear that it will not ultimately act as a stopper on global mobility and partnership.

“All the best academic activity is going to involve more and more large-scale international collaboration; student flows and talent flows are going to keep increasing, despite what individual governments might do,” he says. “That’s an unstoppable force, and we have to make sure we’re best placed to benefit from it.”

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