This week, we interview Richard Garrett, Director of The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education ahead of their forthcoming conference in London in December.

What can we expect from OBHE's New Landscape of Higher Education conference?

We have a great line-up this year. In keeping with the Observatory's remit, we have a wide-ranging agenda and an international mix of speakers. We see our job as to help higher education institutions and policymakers face up to complexity - in terms of both challenge and opportunity. Rather than have an event focused solely on, say, transnational education or online learning, we see value in combining themes to help delegates see the bigger picture.

So this year we will have sessions on international student pathways, online learning, transnational education and the idea of the multinational university. For each session, we are bringing together institutional speakers from different countries, as well as private sector perspectives. We want to surface different models. For example, for the multinational university session we have Martin Lockett, Global Dean at the newly combined Ashridge-Hult business school, merging leading UK and US institutions, plus Chris Hill from University of Nottingham Malaysia who will reflect on Nottingham's multi-campus approach to globalization.

We are also having a session on the proposed and hotly debated TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) in the UK. But rather than limit the discussion to the UK, we're going to make comparisons with similar developments in the US and Hong Kong. We have Dorte Kristoffersen, soon-to-be Executive Director of the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications speaking to the Hong Kong experience.

In terms of international students, do you see the landscape fundamentally changing?

My view is that we will continue to see gradual diversification of study destinations but the major countries will continue to hold sway. The US international student population has a lot of room for growth. Unlike the UK or Australia where 15-20 per cent of all students are international, the US ratio is still below five per cent. A low ratio combined with weak enrolment among domestic student and the top brand suggests that the US "sleeping giant" of international higher education is only just waking up.

More generally, with no end in sight to the steady expansion of the global middle class, and the fact that only a tiny proportion of students currently study abroad, it is hard to conclude that this market is tapped out. In most emerging economies, there is still far more demand than quality supply of higher education of any sort, driven by demographics alone. The biggest "threat" to international recruitment is the growing strength of domestic higher education systems around the world, but it takes decades to build a competitive and scaled higher education sector. Forms of cross-border or transnational higher education expand access, first and foremost, rather than divert students from going abroad. Time abroad remains the gold standard.

But as international student numbers continue to grow, clearer ROI becomes essential. Simply studying abroad is not the differentiator it once was. We are seeing, in the UK in particular, the tension between international student scale and policy to limit employment and migration. Just as international students more keenly need to demonstrate value beyond the classroom, the UK's desire to enrol international students clashes with anxieties about immigration and globalisation.

Do these changes have any implications on how/whether international students are recruited?

It is clear that agents are ever-more important for international student recruitment. Faced with a bewildering array of choices, by country, institution and program, prospective students crave know-how and objectivity. Language and cultural barriers make good agents all the more useful. Overseas education is a huge investment for students and their families, and there is rarely a second chance. Universities and colleges, of course, provide valuable information to prospects, but represent one institution only. Properly regulated, agents can help institutions recruit the right students, and help students find the right institution. Agents can have their own biases and blind spots, but the best agents make sense of very confusing territory. No destination country marketing or technology interface will reduce this value.

How integral has the pathway programme become in international education? Do you think this has reached a saturation point or will continue to grow?

Pathway programs are an attempt to finesse the supply-demand relationship. Many students benefit from language and academic support pre-enrolment, and institutions want study-ready freshmen. Pathway providers stepped in to play a much-needed middleman role. I don't think we know enough about the performance of pathway students but the fundamentals look solid - evidenced by the growth of the model over the past decade. The downside for students is the extra time and cost, which is clearly a barrier for many. Some universities will decide to move away from partnerships and invest in their own pathways, but I suspect most will see net benefit in an alliance. Pathway programs are not core business for most universities.

Pathway students still represent a small fraction of all international students, so it is hard to call saturation in that respect. The US is only just getting going on the pathway model. Plenty of room for growth there. However, it is in the interests of pathway providers to publish more compelling data about student performance, and to highlight the difficulties some non-pathway students get into. Pathway students are often poorly counted - falling between standard data collections. More robust data would help policymakers and institutions, as well as companies, better track these "pathways".

Are the changes we are seeing ones that could be more vulnerable to legislative change/scrutiny, especially given the level of private sector involvement?

It is understandable that the UK government wants to insure against some pathway programmes becoming a backdoor to illegal employment or long-term migration. Linking visa privileges to "embedded" pathways - that is, pathways formally linked to universities - is one way to guard against such a possibility, if rather crude. Pathway sites not tied to a campus, and with relationships with multiple universities, may offer advantages to some students, but the looser connection with a recognised higher education institution removes a key level of oversight. It is in the interests of providers and students for there to be close "pathways" into specific universities. Major pathways firms have long employed exactly this model, and I suspect others will find ways to comply, if their existing university relationships merit it. Overall, I don't see this policy change as a big deal for the industry.

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