It is arguably counterintuitive that a fee-charging UK University would establish a branch campus in Germany, at this time. Why take the risk?
Earlier this year, Lancaster University announced we were working with Navitas to launch a branch campus in Leipzig, Germany. This will be Lancaster’s first campus in mainland Europe, opening in autumn 2019.
Colleagues from both the UK and abroad expressed surprise at the venture. Indeed, this was not far off my own initial thoughts when we started out on this journey.
The impact of Brexit?
A primary motivator for the project was the prospect of Brexit. How will UK universities respond to the impact? Solutions to mitigate this impact might include:
- Increase UK enrolment
- Maintain EU recruitment levels as best as possible
- Increase overseas recruitment
- Retain access to EU research funding.
The specific approaches to mitigate Brexit may differ between universities, but the strategies are likely similar to those outlined above, and it is therefore going to be a crowded and highly competitive space.
Lancaster’s Transnational Education portfolio
Part of Lancaster’s strategy is an aspirational goal to become a globally significant university. This presents a challenge to achieve scale and reputation from a base in North Lancashire.
Our Transnational Education (TNE) portfolio aims, in part, to address this. The University currently has over 6,000 students studying Lancaster degrees in Malaysia, Ghana and China. The target for Leipzig is to exceed one thousand enrolments within five years across a range of course offerings.
The key commonalities across the campuses are the maintenance of Lancaster’s academic standards, a desire to provide access to Lancaster degrees to a constituency that is not able or willing to come to the UK for study, provision of an equitable student experience and an operating model underpinned by commercial acumen.
Lancaster TNE is a full university presence, not simply a teaching outpost. Whilst undergraduate teaching is a common starting point, the aim is to participate in the regional HE ecosystem and complement teaching activity with research and engagement. Success to date is demonstrated by multi-million pound, multi-year research projects with our operations in Ghana and Malaysia.
So, for Lancaster it was important that our Brexit impact mitigation strategy utilised our competency and experience in TNE provision.
We have drawn upon what has worked for Lancaster, as well as taking important lessons from what has not always gone to plan.
Lessons learned from previous TNE ventures include the need for a full understanding of the resilience of the regulatory framework and bureaucracy. We also knew it would be important to test the viability of the value proposition with prospective students.
We entered the process knowing that the University had the discipline and resilience in our internal approvals processes to curtail projects relatively late in the approvals process if it did not fully meet criteria for viability. This has been an exploratory journey of due diligence that ended at Leipzig.
In the end, the Leipzig campus project passed through the due diligence and approvals process at pace.
The parameters from the accrediting body in Saxony were well understood early on in the process, and achieved at first attempt. The proposition to prospective students is clear and offers something that, in the round, is not available via study at Lancaster in the UK, our other TNE operations, nor within the local area that the campus will operate.
Exposing competitive advantage?
Some may question why Lancaster University is drawing attention to this project early in its evolution. If we have something unique, do we expose competitive advantage by sharing part of the narrative that led us here? To the contrary, for the sector, sharing of best practice in the selection, start-up and operation of TNE is a collective imperative.
The reality is, that despite our critics (even those close to home), UK Higher Education remains world leading. UK TNE provision benefits from this global reputation for high quality.
It is a large and growing space but it is imperative that all those who operate or venture into this arena do it well and do not compromise this quality standard. A failure by one of us has the potential to tarnish us all.
Rethinking relationships with EU universities
Brexit, in any form will have an impact on our relationship with the EU. Such changes require us to think of our partnerships in the EU in a different way.
Considering TNE presence is something that is not obvious in current structures. TNE is something that is an acceptable pursuit in most other regions of the world. Post-Brexit the EU will look more like one of those other geographies than it does today.
Brexit will impact other areas of interface with EU universities as well. Erasmus +, Horizon 2020 and the current nature of student recruitment markets are tightly integrated with UK HE strategy and operations.
As a sector and as individual institutions we are embarking on a period of structural change where a number of our current assumptions will no longer hold, it is therefore imperative we rethink how we partner with EU universities.
If staff response is an indicator of project viability then the campus is on a solid foundation. The response internally has been almost universally positive.
Current staff members are proactively coming forward to express interest in working at the campus and the University has been contacted by interested staff at all levels of seniority before we have advertised vacancies. Neither of these interested groups is limited to EU nationals.
Understandably, the narrative on our campus post-referendum was often one of concern, particularly for EU nationals. The Leipzig campus project has served to provide a tangible example to Lancaster staff and reinforce the message that Lancaster is, and will remain a global community.
Three months into student recruitment activity for October 2019, the Leipzig campus is generating applicant demand in over a dozen countries. The project has a way to go, but early indicators are positive. In the short-term, the project will ultimately succeed if sufficient numbers of prospective students and their parents see the value in this option.
No return without risk
As with any new venture, the Lancaster Leipzig Campus project is not without risks. However, in a sector where true differentiation is challenging, this risk is required to achieve return and accomplish something new and unique to make a difference.
Sometimes step change requires challenging long-held assumptions of what is truly possible. Lancaster historically does not occupy a position of prominence in the TNE space in the UK. For the last decade, we have forged ahead with this agenda and are quickly becoming a leader in this space.