University looks to expand international presence through teaching partnerships

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Internationalisation is right at the top of Lancaster University’s agenda. In the Strategic Plan 2009-2015, international development is the first area of strategic development identified.

Lancaster’s commitment to becoming a “world class international institution” is clear. By 2015 it’s hoped that the number of international students studying for a Lancaster degree will have increased by 50%. More and more research and teaching links will have developed to give students a truly international experience.

“Students from one hundred countries make up our community and a third of our staff are international and I believe that this cultural mix enhances the student experience at Lancaster,” said Professor Paul Wellings, Lancaster’s Vice Chancellor. “The growth of the world’s population will increase demand for higher education and world student numbers could double. In all of this, we need to make sure that a Lancaster degree continues to be valued and desired, and the quality of our teaching is secured.”

To this end, Professor Steve Bradley of the Department of Economics was recently appointed to the new position of Pro Vice Chancellor (International), a position created to develop further Lancaster’s presence on the international stage.

“[The position is] really around trying to implement as far as possible the international agenda that is in the strategy,” said Bradley. “[There] was a feeling that international teaching partnerships have grown rapidly and that there was a need to develop these links with all faculties, given that a lot of the teaching partnership activity had occurred in LUMS [the Management School].”

The key areas Bradley wants to tackle are increasing the number of overseas undergraduates, supporting existing international collaborative partnerships, stimulating international research collaborations, helping the internationalisation of the student experience and raising institutional awareness of Lancaster’s internationalisation agenda.

Creating links with overseas institutions and encouraging more international students to enrol is often seen as no more than a way for universities to increase their revenue. Whilst Bradley agrees that diversifying income streams is a sensible move, he believes there’s more to it than just trying to make money.

“There is an income dimension to it but I wouldn’t put that as the main reason why we’re doing these things,” he said. “I think we’re doing these things because we want to be truly international and we want to enhance the experience of our students. It is developmental as well as purely income-generating.”

The biggest links Lancaster has are its teaching partnerships, where students study at a university in their home country but come out with a Lancaster degree. Lancaster currently has three such links: with Sunway University in Malaysia, GD Goenka World Institute in India and COMSATS Institute of Information Technology in Pakistan.

One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that a degree awarded at an overseas institution is academically equivalent to a degree awarded at Lancaster.

“This is the most difficult area and it’s the one that I probably spend most of my time discussing with colleagues,” said Bradley.  “If a person gets a Lancaster University degree at Sunway, GD Goenka or COMSATS, you have to ensure that it is equivalent to, and has similar standards to, a degree at Lancaster.  Our staff also visit frequently and we have relationship managers who keep a conversation going between staff there and staff here, but we appoint external examiners [to] look at the schemes here, and at the schemes there.”

Differences in teaching methods between the different countries have led to Lancaster staff working closely with partner institutions to ensure teaching equivalence.

“Quite often partner staff teach large classes and focus on information giving, whereas at Lancaster we try and be more interactive,” Bradley said. “We try to do this by having staff development programmes run by Organisation and Staff Development, and staff that are employed at Goenka and Sunway will be involved in the kind of teacher training programmes that we offer our staff here.”

The Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), which formerly provided learning support for students, has been restructured into Organisation and Education Development (OED) to focus on staff training, including overseas staff at partner institutions.

“One of the key things to underpin the quality of what we do with our international partners is to get them to understand what we expect regarding academic standards,” said Dr Paul Rodaway, Director of CELT. “We’re very interested in making sure they understand what a Lancaster degree means.”

Lancaster staff visit partner institutions to provide staff support by means of mentoring, observation and teaching parts of courses, and similarly overseas academics have visited Lancaster. Parts of many courses are delivered by Lancaster staff on site, particularly some taught postgraduate courses which are more suited to intensive teaching.

With staff frequently flying around the world, the costs of teaching partnerships soon mount up. However, they’re seen as an excellent return on investment. Partner institutions pay Lancaster a fee to cover teaching and quality assurance activities which is related to the number of students enrolled on a Lancaster-validated degree. For the partner institution, a link to Lancaster is a way of raising their profile and attracting higher quality students. Sunway recently upgraded its status from University College to full University status, something Bradley feels was helped by its relations with Lancaster.

“I’d like to think that we’ve contributed,” he said. “Certainly we have done a lot of staff development and offered a lot of support. We’ve grown the range of programmes with them and they’ve had study visits here […] I think they have learnt from us.”

There are benefits for the students, too. An incentive for potential COMSATS students is that this degree will be “a fraction of the cost of study in the UK”. Given that Sunway and COMSATS have their own degree awarding powers, some courses lead to the awarding of not one but two degrees – the so-called dual award.

Dual degrees are not uncommon. Some courses in the University involve two years’ study at Lancaster and two years’ study at a partner institution, resulting in a degree from each. However, such courses tend to be longer and more intensive than other degrees. In terms of postgraduate students, there are proposals to develop 1 + 1 programmes.

Whether the dual award involves extra work, however, is less clear. No one was able to give a firm answer to this question, stressing instead that for the degree to be validated by Lancaster it must meet all Lancaster’s standards as well as the local institution’s standards.

Bradley said that whilst the University would prefer to offer joint degrees to better reflects the joint nature of the partnership it is prevented from doing so by the University Statues and some overseas national governments which explicitly rule them out. Consequently, Sunway and Comsats students on Lancaster programmes receive two scrolls; Goenka students receive just one as Goenka does not have degree awarding powers.

“In all cases students receive one transcript of their final marks,” said Bradley. “Dual degrees are a growing phenomenon and are becoming more common with respect to taught postgraduate programmes.”

Bradley had previously remarked that although dual degrees are becoming more common they are not standard.

What, then, is the future of links like these? Key target areas for the University are the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Their appeal is their larger populations and rapid economic growth, leading to rising incomes and the expectation that there will be more demand for higher education. There are currently talks underway with regards to creating new kinds of partnership links with universities in China.

“There has been a change of law in China which has become more permissive of overseas universities [establishing] links with Chinese universities,” Bradley explained. “We’re talking to various places like South China University of Technology, which is a very prestigious university. Those kinds of links will probably see the light of day in the not too distant future.”

A development of what would have been a mark two Lancaster campus in Kuwait has recently been shelved after it was decided that the required investment of £44m from the potential partner institution in Kuwait would not represent value for money. Bradley emphasised that the University’s methods of forming and maintaining partnerships “[are] typically low cost and low risk operations and should be seen as branches of Lancaster.”

Because of the variation in types of overseas projects, there is no exact figure for the amounts being spent, although Bradley insisted that it “isn’t a substantial amount of money, our partnerships do carry their costs.” The £44m attached to the shelved Kuwait project is, however, an indicator of how much could potentially be involved.

With tuition fees in the UK likely to rise in 2012, there is also debate over what will happen to international fees, which historically have not been capped in the same way as UK and EU undergraduate fees.

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