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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 December, 2004, 14:32 GMT
Can education really go global?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter, in Edinburgh

There has been much talk about "globalisation" in education, but what will it mean in practice?

Plan of Ningbo campus
The campus will have a capacity of 8,000 students

This autumn, Nottingham University put the theory into practice, as the first students enrolled at its "branch campus" in Ningbo in China.

There are only 250 of these pioneering students in the initial intake, but the purpose-built campus will have the capacity for 8,000, who will be studying for degrees, with everything from libraries to lectures using the English language.

For these Chinese students, the fees at Nottingham's Ningbo campus are about half the cost of international student fees at a university in the United Kingdom. And that's without the extra costs for travel, accommodation and living facing overseas students who come to the UK.

Nottingham University already has a branch in Malaysia and next year intends to open a campus there.

Douglas Tallack, the university's pro-vice-chancellor, says there is much interest in the Ningbo project, including commendations from the Education Secretary Charles Clarke, and that a number of other UK universities are considering setting up their own off-shore institutions.

But he urges that if there is a rush to set up overseas branches, then academic quality and sensitivity to local needs must not be sacrificed.


Creating the campus in Ningbo has been the product of much painstaking work with their Chinese partners, he says. And that it builds upon existing relations with China, including a thousand Chinese students at Nottingham University.

But Prof Tallack, who is set to address the first UK International Education Conference, being held this week in Edinburgh, says that globalisation - or so-called "transnational" education - is going to become part of the landscape.

This could also mean United States universities setting up in the United Kingdom - and recruiting both overseas and British students. With e-mail and videoconferencing, this type of internationalisation becomes increasingly practical.

Prof Tallack sayst it is also likely that individual university departments and subject areas will have international bases and partnerships with other overseas universities.

Artist'simpression of Ningbo campus
Fees will be cheaper than for studying in the UK

He is less keen on this globalisation being seen as an educational gold-rush, with universities, colleges and private operators setting up franchise chains, with less control over quality. There has to be a sense of the integrity of the degree system, he argues, with effective tutorial advice and proper academic rigour.

But there will undoubtedly be a growing number of institutions and businesses looking for a more flexible approach, and they might be likely to take a more direct route to serving an international market hungry for higher education.

This might see a greater fragmentation of the traditional three-year degree course at a single institution.

There are private providers who offer courses where students can study in their own country for one or two years and then spend a single year as an overseas student, where they will complete their degree.

Universities from the UK have an advantage in using English. But increasing numbers of universities around the world use English as a teaching medium, with the specific intention of recruiting overseas students.

The expansion of cross-border education is also going to raise questions about how degrees are validated. If there are numerous international providers offering "degree" courses to students, how are these going to be measured against each other, when they will be based on very different systems? Will there have to be a process of international regulation?

There have already been international university league tables produced, and all the signs seem to suggest that universities are moving towards becoming international institutions.

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