The PIE: What does your role look like at Heriot-Watt?
Lucy Everest: Heriot-Watt is quite distinctive because even though it is Scottish University by heritage, it has a very distinctive global footprint. A third of all students study overseas at a campus somewhere outside of the UK, a third are in Scotland, and the other third are online. My role is about supporting those students whenever and however they come into Heriot-Watt through until they graduate. What’s also quite distinctive is that it doesn’t shy away from the vocational word. It’s very important for us that students that equipped with the skills that they’re going to need to go into jobs now and in the future. I have a team globally of over 500 staff, and absolutely everything we do is integrated globally – there’s no UK-centric model.
That is particularly the case for sales, marketing and recruiting operations where we have these regional hubs. We have a hub in Southeast Asia, in Malaysia, a hub in Dubai and a hub in Scotland, and we use that hub to recruit students from that region to wherever in the world they want to go. Heriot-Watt students are truly global – the majority of students can start anywhere and finish anywhere – they can have a semester abroad, a year abroad, two years abroad. For us it’s about maximising engagement support for students and then linking that into their careers. While the campuses are separate, we try and make them as seamless as possible.
The PIE: What initiatives have you been working on recently?
LE: We now have our new Dubai campus, which opened in April. We’ve had a presence in Dubai for over 15 years, but obviously we’re now cementing our presence in the region with this amazing new campus, and because of that, student recruitment is booming.
Another major project which we were setting up pre-Covid is Heriot-Watt online, which is essentially scaling up our distance learning provision. We’ve always had a very, very successful online MBA, which made us third in the UK for TNE, but we’re now scaling up to launch 20 programs – most recently digital transformation, logistics and supply chain management, and entrepreneurship. We’ve also just had approval for a global foundation college, which is essentially a pathways college. We’ve always had foundation pathways in Dubai and Malaysia, which are very successful. We now want to cement that with a new pathway into Scotland, into Edinburgh in particular, because currently there’s no foundation undergraduate route into an Edinburgh-based university. That is launching early in the new year and the first intake will be September 2022.
“We’ve had a presence in Dubai for over 15 years, but obviously we’re now cementing our presence in the region with this amazing new campus”
The PIE: While you’ve clearly been busy, how has Covid affected operations?
LE: I think in the first financial year of the pandemic, we were assuming a significant downturn in international interest. By January 2021, we were able to stabilise some of the recruitment streams for the UK. For Dubai, I think the new campus, holds us in good stead – it’s been more open overall than the UK, and locked down earlier and opened up earlier.
One challenge has been dealing with the different context across three global campuses, but the biggest has been supporting students during that period. A lot of students at our Scotland campus chose to stay in halls of residence during Christmas last year, even if they could leave. I don’t think universities necessarily got enough credit for supporting those students at that time. We had really positive feedback about the way we supported them.
Our biggest challenge in Dubai was the opening of the new campus. September 2020 was the original opening date, but because of challenges in the construction sector we had to move to an interim campus during the pandemic. The team there did an amazing job to pull that off. We didn’t know how things were going to turn out, and that was compounded by the financial uncertainty. We found that there was a real resurgence of interest from India in the UK as soon as it opened up again, it was just managing those ebbs and flows in a very, very risk averse environment.
The PIE: What is the focus for the bounce-back from that difficult time?
LE: It’s about flexibility for students and about the path that’s right for them. One of the points at our Future Skills Conference is that we believe that different hubs around the world will start to play a different role in global student mobility – for instance, the UAE and Dubai in particular, it is seeing the strengths of higher education provision from UK, US and Australian providers. That sense of wanting a campus experience away from home, but not that far from home, is becoming an increasingly popular choice for Chinese, African and central Asian students.
“TNE, partnerships, location flexibility: they’re all going to be really important elements in the mix going forward”
What we see as the future is these global education hubs underpinned by what I see is a quality UK higher education brand. TNE, partnerships, location flexibility: they’re all going to be really important elements in the mix going forward. I think that forced shift to online learning has massively reduced a kind of scepticism about it. The challenge will be whether certain governments around the world will adapt their policies, especially in places like the Middle East and China – they were pretty sceptical about online learning, and despite its use for a fixed period they aren’t necessarily encouraging it to be recognised. It’s getting that balance between face-to-face and online, and what’s best for the students, but also what’s best strategically for country-to-country relations.
The PIE: Can you tell us a bit more about Heriot-Watt’s involvement in the Dubai Expo?
LE: We are supporting partners, which means that we participated in various opportunities since Expo opened to connect our research with the wider world. We’ve had various different robotics days and engineer-for-a-day type initiatives.
We’re really focusing on future careers and showing how education connects with the future of the world, which is obviously a really important thing for an Expo like this in terms of what the world holds for us going forward, and what role technology will play. A lot of the talks will be based around what employers are looking for. We have a mixed panel exploring some of those topics, demonstrating how universities are well-placed to provide graduates with the right skills for the future and then particularly the debate I’m chairing is around global capability. It’s really thinking about what the future holds.
The PIE: What do you think is next for the industry and for Heriot-Watt as we adapt more to the pandemic?
LE: As soon as students are allowed to travel, there will still be a huge enthusiasm for wanting a new learning experience. As soon as the UK flexed its policies you could almost see almost on a granular level how a policy change in a country affects the movement of students around the world. They’re just so tuned into what’s going on, and have the ability to get feedback from peers around what that experience is like.
“Universities have to work hard to keep up with students’ needs”
Students have their own ecosystem as soon as they arrive in the country they come to – around that, universities have to work hard to keep up with their needs. We have to ask what it is they want from studying in the UK. We have to attune and personalise those services. Universities have to get better at designing the experience for different cohorts, rather than just simply talking about diversification or being less reliant on China and India and actually think about the interventions that will support those students when they come to the UK, Dubai or Malaysia. We are focused on their future success, and I’m sure all universities say that, but it’s critical we do that. Students now will vote with their feet, they will ask their peers, and in some ways that is more important than rankings in this new day and age.