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August 19, 2019

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Developing education partnership of equals

The Trump administration’s tightening of US visa policies has been the bane of US universities seeking to attract international students and visiting scholars.

But could it be a boon to UK colleges in search of more opportunities globally amid the uncertain outlook of Brexit?

Meanwhile, since the UK invests huge sums in artificial intelligence, will British institutions partner with Chinese counterparts and companies to explore more applications for their research results?

And how do schools in the UK compete in the face of new challenges from rapidly growing universities in the emerging world?

Alan Ferns, Associate Vice-President for External Relations and Reputation at the University of Manchester, recently sat down with Shanghai Daily staff writer Ni Tao to discuss these issues.

Q: Do you expect the change in US visa policies to translate into advantages for British colleges in attracting international students, including those from China?

A: I think it’s important to recognize politics, changes and different trends around the globe that can impact on international student recruitment in many domains.

I recognize the developments in the US. But I think regardless of those, the United Kingdom has a proud record and good reputation for attracting students from China.

We’re already a big recruiter of Chinese students at an undergraduate and postgraduate level. We have around 6,000 Chinese students studying at the University of Manchester. I expect that to continue.

There are early signs that our new prime minister and new government will be welcoming to international students. In a recent speech, he talked about the global role of British universities and the strength of British universities around the world.

And also possibly we will see some change in the immigration and visa rules that will make it easier for international students to study in the UK and maybe gain some work experience in the UK after their studies.

Q: With the future of Brexit hanging in the balance, what are its implications for the role of British universities in the world?

A: It depends, crucially, on what happens over the next few months and what kind of Brexit we have, whether there is a deal or we have a no-deal Brexit.

Universities are very concerned about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, not so much for student recruitment, but more for international research collaboration.

At the moment the UK has many collaborations that involve European universities, and also Chinese international universities. And the British universities are concerned that unless we have a deal as we leave the EU, we may not be able to participate in some of the collaborations that involve European universities.

We now require international research projects to look at challenges such as climate change, so professors and research teams from around the world can work together. And we from Manchester participate in many of those. It’s important the route is still open to collaboration between universities in these projects.

Q: The University of Manchester is renowned as a cradle of AI because Alan Turing, widely credited as the father of AI, once worked there. What is remarkable about your research capabilities in this field?

A: We have a long and proud history in computing and AI. It’s true that Alan Turing worked at the university with electrical engineers Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams, who invented the world’s first programmable computer in 1948, and designed programs for that computer.

We now have around 850 professors and staff at the university involved in some kind of research in the future of digital computing. They are looking to harness the power of AI and big data to address some of the big challenges in society, in key areas where we are seeking to apply data around health and well-being.

How can we use AI to improve people’s health? Can we use AI to predict and prevent disease? How can we make life in big cities and urban environment more tolerable? So health care and urban management, those are the two areas we are looking at.

Q: You are reaching out to potential partners to apply your research in AI. How many of these partnerships are underway?

A: I don’t know the exact number, but increasingly we are forging deeper links with a few select partners.

We now have a partnership with Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Hubei Province. We also have collaboration with individual companies across China.

A few weeks ago, we had a visit from Wang Zhigang, the Chinese Minister for Science and Technology. He visited the UK to talk about opportunities for collaboration in the areas of digital technology, advanced material and biochemistry. These are some of the key fields in terms of individual partnerships.

Q: Will these outreach programs increase in size and scope as Brexit prompts British universities to push harder for opportunities outside the UK?

A: I think Brexit is a factor, but this is not why we are looking.

We are looking because we want to go where the best science, research and technology is, where the most innovative companies are. And many of those are in China now.

So it’s not because of Brexit. Instead, Brexit will give us an encouragement to look elsewhere in the world.

The University of Manchester’s links with China go back many years. Three years ago, President Xi Jinping visited our campus and some of our research facilities. So our links had been strong before Brexit was even thought of.

Q: Merger and consolidation are a broad trend in higher education. But there can be risks involved. Was it challenging for you to oversee the merger of two universities in Manchester in 2004 to become what is the now the University of Manchester?

A: One of the key ingredients of our success is that we considered the merger as just a platform. The day we came together was just the beginning. What was key was to have an ambitious plan for where we wanted to go.

We appointed a president from Australia. That was a symbol. When he came, he said the merger itself was the easy part; the next part was to build a world-class university from this platform. So he set some big goals of where he wanted the university to be by 2015. In 2004, we had 21 Nobel Prize winners. He said it was time to get four or five more by 2015. Since the merger, we recruited two, one from America, one from Oxford. And two of our own scientists won the Nobel Prize in 2010. So now we have 25 and met his ambitions.

The important thing I learned from this merger is to look into the future with ambitions and not allow people to look back and say where they came from but where they are going to.

Q: What do you make of the increasing challenge from Asian universities in the global race for talent?

A: I think it is to be welcomed. It shows the true global nature of higher education that was once very focused in the West but is now shared in the East.

I think it’s a reminder to universities in the West that they need to invest in themselves to stay at the forefront of their game.

But even more important for us, it provides an opportunity and new partners to collaborate with. Many of the challenges we face are global challenges, and the key to solving them is to develop global research partnerships to address those questions.

And those partnerships in the East are as important to us, if not more important, as partnerships in the West.

We begin to see evidence of that now. Particularly our relationship with China and Chinese institutions is changing. At one time, we would have many undergraduates doing a first degree from China. Now the focus is on scholarships for joint PhD students and collaborations for joint research centers between universities in the East and ours.

So as the system grows and matures in the East, the nature of the partnership changes and becomes more true partnerships.

Q: With global education now becoming a two-way street, as evidenced by the UK’s partial adoption of some Chinese textbooks in primary schools, will the reverse flow of ideas also occur in tertiary education?

A: I think cooperation is the key to the future at all levels.

You mentioned primary school and I was involved in the primary school back in the UK. And I know there are schemes for mathematical teaching for young children in the UK, some of them based on experiences from China or Singapore. So we learn from each other.

Likewise, the mathematical knowledge of Chinese children is really brilliant. But what Chinese schools can learn from the West is to see how to apply some of that knowledge in different settings.

So I think the opportunities for partnerships and for learning from each other are clearly there. That’s happening in schools and increasingly in universities now. And it will become more partnerships of equals I think.


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