The University of Essex vice chancellor on how he’s tackling challenges facing his university
PUBLISHED: 11:58 12 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:44 12 February 2019
It’s one of the contradictions of Brexit Britain that while the numbers of international students at the University of Essex has increased significantly since the EU referendum, the numbers of British students choosing to learn a modern foreign language there has fallen sharply.
“We have seen an increase in our intake from the EU in the last two years since Brexit where most universities have seen very dramatic declines, because we really turned up the volume of our engagement in Europe,” explained the university’s vice chancellor, Anthony Forster.
Essex has seen substantial growth in the majority of departments of up to 40%, but some courses such as modern languages have been impacted negatively by national trends. Mr Forster says foreign language skills are not seen as important by the government in the national curriculum anymore.
“It has meant that we have to be really smart in how we adapt student recruitment, looking more internationally - particularly for that department,” he said. “We have built a translation lab to make sure that we have world class facilities.”
Although the University of Essex’s main campus is in Colchester, a town which voted ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum, Mr Forster explained that when the results were announced, the university took “a very conscious decision to lean into the very clear message that Essex is international, global, and values the cosmopolitan culture that its staff and students bring”.
The university is now one of the fastest growing in the UK, increasing its student intake from about 9,500 in 2012 to 16,000 today, of whom 40% currently come from outside the UK. And 15% of those are from EU countries. Its bold aim is to get to 20,000 students by 2025.
“We have really invested in this in terms of international trips to build links with university partners, and created regional international offices in China, Malaysia, India and Africa to really make sure we’ve got University of Essex staff on the ground in all the key continents,” Mr Forster said. “We’re getting that message through and seeing the significant benefit of that.”
Essex’ international student portfolio was thrown into the spotlight in 2014 when one of its Saudi students, Nahid Almanea, was brutally murdered on her way to university by a 17 year old local boy, in a case which was widely broadcast not only in the UK but across the Arab world.
“We had relatively low student numbers from Saudi Arabia at the time of that murder, but yes, there was a drop after that,” admitted Mr Forster.
The university’s international footprint is now under threat from a hard Brexit, and Mr Forster admits that he is concerned about how Brexit will affect the ability to access international student visas. He wrote an open letter last year to the then Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation secretary of state, Sam Gyimah setting out his points.
“The government needs to understand what we need if we want our university education to be first class,” he said. “There are many issues around student mobility, student recruitment, staff recruitment, and making sure we can support research networks. It’s not just about replacing money we won’t get anymore from Europe, but about scholarly and scientific networks in Europe that are so important to us.
“One of the concerns is that we’ve got fantastic staff we’re currently recruiting from the EU who are currently starting on or lower than the £30,000 salary point being trailed as a threshold salary for companies recruiting from outside the UK.
“For us, that would be extremely damaging to be able to recruit the very best scholars and academics to come join us – not just in academic roles, but professional services roles that play a key part in keeping our IT infrastructure running, and the human resources activities continuing as they are.”
Mr Forster is particularly proud of his university’s reputation for ground-breaking research into AI, machine learning, natural language processing, which has led to the development of robots that are learning how to pick strawberries in Essex fields, and a motion-controlled camera that can detect human behaviour.
The university’s analytics and data science department is led by Professor Maria Fasli, the only UNESCO chair of analytics and data science in the world. “It’s deliberately based on our science park to make sure the 30 businesses based there have easy access to our expertise and we’re supporting them,” Mr Forster explained.
The university has 25 knowledge transfer partnerships (links with local businesses to share knowledge and help them innovate), which places it in top four universities in the UK in that realm.
Essex’s 35 acre research and technology park, Knowledge Gateway, boasts 32,000 sq ft of office space and has about 30 companies now based there. The university is also poised to open new £12m innovation centre in partnership with Essex County Council and the South East LEP, which will support up to 50 student start ups a year.
Mr Forster said he thinks it will be a “real game-changer”.
“There are very few British universities where their science park is absolutely an integral part of their campus, it’s hugely exciting.
“We hope they will be supported by the university and then stay in Essex, and we will be able to grow businesses.”
Essex has just been named ‘University of the Year’ by Times Higher Education, which is a lofty accolade.
But universities in the UK are now currently faced with a myriad of challenges, which Essex is not immune to.
“Our USS pension scheme is suffering a bit in terms of the size of the deficit, but we are one of the few universities who have said we think a really good pension scheme matters for our staff and we are prepared to pay more into that scheme, alongside our employees,” Mr Forster said.
Another challenge is that there were fewer 18 year olds in the UK population, which Mr Forster admits made things more difficult.
But he is determined that Essex will recruit on the basis of potential, not prior achievement, and potential students are interviewed before offers are made.
“We are the most socially diverse university in the top 30 in the country, which we’re really proud of,” he said. “We have outreach programmes with a range of schools, and we bring sixth form students on campus to use our facilities, to show them who we are and give them flavour of university life. We’re keen to encourage students from underrepresented groups who haven’t thought of going to university in the past.
“Doing the right thing is doing the right thing. For Essex, we’re impatient for change. These things sometimes cost money, but sometimes principles do cost money. I’m delighted that we have an academic community and governing body absolutely supportive of this.”