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.
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.”
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.