Students chatting outside campus building
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Copyright Matt Wright

UK-US Higher Education Partnerships: Realizing the Potential, by Neil Kemp and Christine Humphrey

The US is the UK’s most important partner in higher education and there have been excellent successes achieved through close cooperation that have been of benefit to both nations. These activities have brought about 45,000 US students to the UK each year and attracted significant investment resulting in an annual turnover from UK–US higher education cooperation of over £1 billion. However, the global higher education market is changing and this is likely to impact on the primacy of the UK–US relationship. This applies to all cooperative activities including research, student mobility and recruitment, collaborative degrees and staff exchanges.

Only a limited number of UK institutions have been successful at growing excellent and high profile strategic partnerships, particularly with US research led universities. Yet these relationships are vital for both the UK’s research delivery and for enhancing its reputation as a provider of high quality higher education. Overall across the UK sector, activities with the US tend to be ad hoc. Evidence demonstrates that compared to other key countries, the UK and its institutions are under-investing in the US relationship.

The international higher education landscape in the US is changing:

  • More 'new' countries are investing and competing to grow US education and research partnerships
  • The US is keen to diversify and enhance its international outreach and co-operation, particularly in the Asia Pacific region
  • Many of the next generation of academic and research leaders in US universities, particularly in STEM disciplines, will have stronger ties with Asia than with Europe

The research to support this study was undertaken in 2009 and involved literature reviews; three online surveys of UK and US universities and UK researchers; interviews; and focus groups in UK and US. From the responses the following were identified as the top activities in priority order:

  • For US universities: Study abroad placements in UK; receiving UK exchange students; growing staff/faculty exchanges; and research cooperation
  • For UK universities: Growing research cooperation; recruitment of US study abroad students; recruiting young researchers (particularly doctoral students); recruiting masters and undergraduate students

Interviews confirmed many of the above priorities; however, there were some inconsistencies in the current range of activities, for example:

  • UK institutions gave priority to study abroad recruitment but had been slow to respond to the changing requirements and international competition
  • UK institutions gave low priority to dual degrees yet other surveys indicated how much energy US institutions are putting into finding partners for international delivery

Across the activities that together contribute to the UK–US relationship, there appears to be a clear virtuous circle: UK interest in US studies, research partnerships or individual faculty links might result in new forms of teaching collaboration and study abroad registrations, and these could lead to full degree registration or postdoctoral exchanges. These in turn strengthen future research, faculty links and teaching partnerships. Partnerships have the potential to deliver new forms of co-operation that might operate successfully across all types of collaborative activities.