UK Higher Education

Interview with Pro VC of University of Bristol: Erik Lithander

Our work with some of the world’s top Higher Education Institutions means that we get to meet great thinkers such as Dr Erik Lithander, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol. We were fortunate enough to meet up with him to hear his thoughts on Brexit, the UK’s position in a global playing field and how government policy impacts student demand.

What would your message to EU universities be to assure ongoing research and collaboration amid Brexit?

The UK’s leading universities pursue excellence in everything that they do, and Brexit will not change the fact that we will continue looking towards Europe for some of our most important and productive collaborations. If anything, I suspect that we will redouble our efforts to engage meaningfully with European universities in the years ahead.

Whether the UK “pays to play” in the coming European research framework programme or sets up its own parallel research framework, I am certain that opportunities for collaboration such as the ones that we enjoy today will remain a priority for both sides. There is simply too much to lose to somehow turn our backs on decades of trust and friendship between the academic communities on both sides, which has led to progressively more intense research collaboration with partners across Europe.

How is Bristol going to ensure its student cohort and teaching staff (both domestic, EU and non-EU) remain diverse amid the prospect that Brexit may negatively impact EU student/staff numbers?

Since Brexit first came onto the horizon we have been adamant we will not allow it to dictate the direction of our institutional strategy. During this period we have been continuously testing and critiquing our existing University Strategy and Plan to satisfy ourselves that it is still fit for purpose given the uncertainties of the external environment. Of course we have made significant preparations to mitigate the challenges which Brexit inevitably poses, but we are not changing our strategic direction. The ambitions in our university strategy are as relevant as ever, and it is more important than ever that we focus on achieving them.

Attracting the very best staff and students from around the world was already an institutional priority for the University, and Brexit only strengthens our resolve to do so. We have invested heavily in our marketing and recruitment functions, and have seen significant growth in student applications during the last few turbulent years. We are also very pleased to see that we are continuing to attract fantastic candidates from overseas to our staff vacancies. We cannot take that for granted, however, and will need to continue our intense effort to communicate with our applicants how important the international dimension is to our entire community.

What can the UK learn from other key destination markets such as Canada and Australia?

Unlike for instance the Australians, we lack a cast-iron cross-party understanding that international higher education is an overwhelmingly good thing for the economy and for the country. During the years that I spent in Australia there was almost unprecedented political instability (I saw three Prime Ministers come and go in four years), but at no time was there any wavering of support for the internationalisation objectives of the country’s universities. This manifested itself in a stable policy environment in relation to visas, post-study work rights and support of the national education brand.

It is particularly tricky to convince students, parents and the education agents that support them that a UK education is a good investment when the government itself can come across as unconvincing in its support for the sector, as evidenced by uncompetitive policies or unhelpful language (such as that associated with net migration figures). We need to be joined up and consistent in our messaging at a national level: that’s what the Aussies and Kiwis figured out a long time ago.

In the UK we haven’t yet fully internalised the reality that although we may feel slightly uncomfortable saying so out loud, international education is unquestionably an export, albeit a somewhat unusual one. Unusual in that whilst UK TNE products are consumed offshore, some of our exports are consumed in the UK, when fee-paying international students enrol in our on-campus programmes. The benefit of occasionally thinking explicitly of international higher education in terms of being an export is that it brings into stark relief that, like any other export, it operates best within a coherent and consistent policy environment that is most likely to be achieved through cross-departmental government initiatives.

In your experience, how does government policy impact international student demand and what role does real-time data related to prospective student preferences play in navigating the ever-changing HE climate?

Applicants from different markets have different sensitivities. What they all have in common, however, is the need to be sent a clear message that we appreciate them as individuals and are delighted that they are choosing to pursue their studies in the UK. Ideally this appreciation should be reflected in a swift and uncomplicated visa system and in post-study work rights which acknowledge that the country stands to benefit greatly from retaining, albeit for a year or two, the talent that we have just gone through a significant amount of effort to nurture in our classrooms and labs.

The reality is that the vast majority of graduating international students have little interest in settling down permanently in the UK (and that, by the way, is our loss). Let’s not kid ourselves: for international graduates, there are many dynamic places to pursue your career in other than the UK. Rather, these graduates want to benefit from gaining some work experience in a different environment from their own, experience which will stand them in good stead when they leave the UK and enter the labour market back home or in a third country.

What we sometimes fail to appreciate is that the work experience that recent graduates gain in the UK leads to familiarity with our industries and our business culture and to the development of personal and professional networks. Significantly, this leads to an increased likelihood of doing business with the UK in the future. What is perhaps most frustrating is that studies clearly show that the public does not view international students as migrants, nor is the public negatively disposed towards them getting post-study work experience in the UK.

It is particularly unhelpful to the sector that the issue of international student rights in the UK has gotten caught up in a much broader immigration debate, which is being carried out with language which is damaging to our attractiveness in international markets. These days, just because you are trying to score political points with a local audience in mind does not mean that you are not being heard by stakeholders thousands of miles away who may be sensitive to that narrative.

What keeps you up at night (personally and from a Bristol perspective) about the current state of HE?

I find it hugely frustrating that the UK higher education sector, which is unquestionably one of the finest and most internationally respected “industries” in the country, has turned into a bit of a political football. Let’s be clear: by and large, with the exception of the impact that election promises relating to tuition fees have on the youth vote, the fate of the country’s universities is not a question which keeps the general electorate awake at night.

There seems to be arguably little political consequence in de-prioritising policy settings or the funding environment in higher education. What is lost in doing so, however, is the opportunity to build on real strength and consolidate our position as a genuine global leaders in higher education. We spend lots of time as a sector reassuring ourselves that we really are among the global elite, but we need to urgently wake up to the fact that we may well soon be left behind if we don’t get our act together and accept the harsh realities of what is an intensely competitive global playing field.

Enjoyed this interview? Read our article on how the UK’s new international education strategy has been perceived abroad.

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