From adapting to creating – the role of the higher education sector in shaping the new normal


Over 230 delegates from around the world came together for the annual NCUK Partner Conference. The event, held virtually, was the largest celebration of international higher education and brought together over 70 NCUK Study Centres, NCUK staff and universities from all the major destination markets. Anyone who has attended an NCUK Partner Conference event will know, there is never a shortage of lively debate and this year was no different.

Leading the event with a keynote speech was Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International. Vivienne was then joined by leading commentators in the international sector, Tayyeb Shah, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Partnerships) at the University of Western Australia; Professor Jennifer Watling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor International at Manchester Metropolitan University; and Brett Birquist, Director International at The University of Auckland. Professor John Brewer, CEO, led the panel on key talking points that are at the foremost of people’s minds across the sector.

“It’s been an incredibly challenging year for everyone across the sector and yet here were are all gathered to celebrate the achievements across the network and, importantly, look to what the future holds. It’s been an incredible achievement that our Study Centres and our partner universities adapted so quickly to ensure continuity for all NCUK students and alumni at university.”

Professor John Brewer, CEO at NCUK

Indeed, Brett Birquist noted that at the University of Auckland, they shut down the to plan the move to online. In no more than a week, faculty were back on the front line. Brett commented:

Life is normal here in New Zealand but our borders are shut. The flexibility of our staff has been amazing. Their willingness to embrace the challenge of dual delivery – on campus and offshore online, with some students studying at home, some at our new China centres. The demand has been extraordinary and I’m so proud of the staff and refreshing academic approach which will bring innovation.

Brett Birquist, Director International at The University of Auckland

These sentiments were echoed by Professor Jenny Watling who added that

“We’ve already seen a change in academics catalysed by the pandemic. People are really embracing the change and looking at how we can do things differently, not just now but in the future, too. We already deliver online masters and are looking at PhD options.”

Professor Jennifer Watling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor International at Manchester Metropolitan University

Jenny added that she didn’t think people will be hesitant to embrace new ways of learning and teaching. A similar thought and experience from UWA. There and along with the other Australian Group of Eight (G8) universities, they are working on not a reduction but learning centres in locations such as China, like the University of Auckland established. Students can benefit from peer and academic support and also have a campus environment for the social aspects of university life.


Vivienne Stern of University UK International added to the discussion from the opportunities available to the students and how good can come from enforced change.

The more a university invests in their facilities, teaching staff and environment, the better you hope the learning opportunities will be for students. I’d like to see universities do a lot more to support international graduates to re-enter the labour market around the world which won’t come free. I would encourage students not to go for the cheapest option but the one that most closely matches what they wanted to get out of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Vivienne Stern, Director Universities UK International 

The discussion picked up on university fee pricing debate and whether these different styles of learning should command lower price tags. All noted that given the speed to move online, it was not providing to be cheaper and many universities have had to invest in new technology to ensure the high standards of academic delivery were maintained.

All the panel were in agreement on fees in that most universities are finding online delivery costs just as much. However, they are looking to the future and what it might mean results in the universities are always reviewing fees.

Panel discussion NCUK Partner Conference 2020

It’s a major investment for students and their families and it places immense pressure on individuals. One advantage the students gain from a blended approach is that they can save money by living at home.

Professor Jenny Watling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor International at Manchester Metropolitan University

We now face online by necessity as opposed to online by design. There has been a rush to get online but universities now need to look at how they can pedagogically make much more sophisticated and embracing instructional design capabilities that online affords. For Vivienne, this presents an exciting opportunity to collaborate on the delivery of programmes of best of disciplines –more universities seeing TNE on franchising validation model but more thing about your university to be a gateway to access the best of what’s available in this discipline that this digital revolution can open up. A sentiment echoed and lived by NCUK and the Study Centre network.

The discussion continued through the week and NCUK were delighted to have Gordon Fletcher give the keynote at the end of the session. Picking up on the debate from the panel discussion, Gordon, Director, Business 4.0, from the University of Salford, was able to provide firsthand experience on the future of digital education.

One of the jobs we have going forwards is that ‘messy’ isn’t a great place to be and we need to design things to move away from this for our students. The ask from the students was for flexibility, pace, timing, shape, format style – everything. Some wanted face to face, some didn’t. Ultimately, we can’t give them everything that they wanted, but they did want connectivity and contact.

Gordon observed that students, and many worldwide, were operating in a BANI environment – brittle, anxious, non-linear, incomprehensible and that it was very much the academics’ role to provide some certainty, an overriding message from NCUK during the pandemic, too.

university of salford

Gordon agreed that there is a pressure to innovate and a need for strategic direction and alignment as well as a need to understand these innovative business models. Students, lecturers and universities should always plan considering that there are existing levels of uncertainty and more importantly, accepting it. Collaboration, Gordon concluded, will be one of the keys to success in the future of digital education.

If you would like to find out more about the NCUK Partner Conference, you can have a look at our last news article here.