By Tony Reilly, OBE
It is always good to be at the centre of things and reap the rewards of being in that position. In the field of international higher education, the desire to become a central “hub” for a particular region of the world has emerged in a growing number of countries.
Post conflict Sri Lanka is one such country with clear and legitimate aspirations to establish itself as a higher education hub for the South and East Asia region. The government of Sri Lanka is currently developing strategies, action plans and systems to achieve this vision.
The advantages are clear; being a hub helps attract the brightest students from nearby countries, brings in expertise from further afield, and helps to establish a reputation for knowledge and innovation. But the reality is that efforts to become a hub can be difficult to manage, making the goal harder to achieve than might be expected.
The issues raised by the regional hub phenomenon will be explored by international higher education experts at ‘Going Global’, the UK’s annual international education conference organised by the British Council, which is taking place this year in Hong Kong from 10 to 12 March.
The theme for this year’s event is ‘World Education: The New Powerhouse?’ At the conference, international experts will examine examples of established and emerging higher education regional hubs from around the world, to see what lessons can be learned from the experience.
Malaysia, for instance, has a clear strategy to become an international hub for postgraduates, but there have been concerns expressed by some international students and researchers over the quality of support available to them.
Questions have been raised over whether Malaysia’s education system has reached the necessary standards to become a hub, while its geographical position next to Singapore means that competition for students is particularly intense.
Hong Kong is experiencing similar difficulties in its own desire to consolidate its position as a regional hub. While its universities have expanded their numbers of international students significantly over the past 10 years, limits under existing policy on the proportion of first year students that can come from overseas, combined with immigration constraints, will not allow them to expand in this direction much further.
They may have reached a saturation point. There are also some concerns that the current level of accommodation and support available for international students may not be enough to support continued growth.
A more optimistic picture is emerging here in post-conflict Sri Lanka. The high-quality of its education, safe environment, low cost of living and diverse culture, combined with government initiatives to encourage foreign universities to set up campuses here, means it is well-placed as a potential regional hub.
What is becoming clear is that to succeed, countries and their universities and colleges must first establish strong overseas networks and partnerships with existing international and transnational programmes.
The more links with other countries they have, the larger their pool of potential students. They should try to make it easy for students to travel to them, and ensure they feel welcome once they are there as part of a lively, international student body.
Meticulous market research is essential to ensure that institutions are providing the courses that international students will be interested in studying. And they need to have robust systems of student support so that overseas students have somewhere to live, feel safe and know where to go if they need help.
At the same time, prospective regional hubs need to balance their desire to be internationally recognised with maintaining their national and regional identity. This includes, of course, the need to maintain and invest in the quality of national state universities, as international providers arrive in the market place, in order to avoid the emergence of a two tier, public-private or international-local divide.
The good news is that success breeds success. Students who enjoy their time studying in another country tend to return and recommend it to their friends and family, who also spread the word. The bad news is that news of a poor experience travels equally fast – if not faster.
Competition to be a higher education hub is likely to intensify over the next few years. For those that succeed it can certainly bring rewards. But it is important to remember that not everyone can be at the centre.
Interesting times lie ahead as Sri Lanka sets out to put flesh on its legitimate aspirations to attract student traffic from the region, while at the same time, increasing choice and options for thousands of talented young Sri Lankans who wish to stay at home to further their higher education studies.
(The writer is Country Director, British Council Sri Lanka.)