HE Viewpoints: What makes an international university?

In Education by Tom Cannon

The UK has dominated the latest rankings from Times Higher Education, which reveal the most international universities in the world. The UK has almost a third of the entries in the top 200 and 39 UK universities make the top 100! In this first part of a two part series on international students and what makes an international university, we speak to some of the featured universities about what it means to be a truly international university. 

Viewpoints from: Professor Mark Spearing, Jo Doyle, Professor Stuart Croft, Lee Wildman, Hayley Simpson, Jenny Grinter and Will Breare-Hall.


Student and staff population

Lee Wildman - Queen Mary University of London

Lee Wildman – Queen Mary University of London

Lee Wildman is the Head of International Student Recruitment at Queen Mary University of London (ranked 23rd), he told us: “Our position as a world top 100 institution and our consistent ranking amongst the top 25 most international universities worldwide, alongside the benefits of living and studying on a campus in the world’s most culturally diverse city, are key components of our messaging when reaching out to prospective students overseas. Approximately 30 per cent of QMUL’s student body comes from overseas, including both European and International students. As a cohort they play a hugely significant role at the university. We welcome students and staff from 150 countries, and alumni from 167 countries and QMUL receives funded scholars from 50 international funding bodies.”
Mark Spearing - University of Southampton

Mark Spearing – University of Southampton


Professor Mark Spearing is the Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) at the University of Southampton (ranked 60th), he agreed that attracting international students was key:  “Our international cohort of students is growing. Currently, 30 per cent of our students are international and an increasing number of students are taking advantage of mobility programmes while they are enrolled in our educational programmes.”

“We are proud that students from over 125 countries choose to live and study at Royal Holloway”

Hayley Simpson - Royal Holloway University of London

Hayley Simpson – Royal Holloway University of London

Hayley Simpson is the Senior International Recruitment Manager at Royal Holloway University of London (ranked 30th) she gave us an impressive breakdown of their international student cohort: “Out of approximately 9000 students at Royal Holloway in 2015/16, around 77% are from the UK or the European Union and around 23% are international (outside the EU) students.  We are proud that students from over 125 countries choose to live and study at Royal Holloway, which makes for a vibrant, multi-national community.”

A spokesperson for the University of St Andrews (ranked 34th) told us: “We have had over 30% overseas students since 2009 and over 128 countries are represented across our student body. Our overseas students participate in programmes right across the Faculties and curriculum (no school has less than 50 overseas students). We are also international in terms of the degree to which St Andrews staff, who come here from around the globe, collaborate with international colleagues.”

Jenny Grinter - University of Essex

Jenny Grinter – University of Essex

Jenny Grinter, Head of Communications at the University of Essex (ranked 21st) explained how both staff and student population has an impact: “Internationalism is central to Essex’s commitment to excellence in research and education. More than 130 countries are represented within our University community, with international students making up 40% of the student body. The University also attracts numerous leading academics from around the world and fosters innovative collaborations with prominent institutions across the globe.”
Will Breare-Hall - LSE

Will Breare-Hall – LSE

Will Breare-Hall is the Student Recruitment and Study Abroad Manager at London School of Economics (ranked 22nd) and he agrees that the make-up of the university plays an important role in their identity as an international university: “70% of our students are from outside the UK. Over 150 different nationalities are represented in the student body. 45% of our staff are from outside the UK. The School has active alumni groups in 90 countries.” He also pointed out that their academic portfolio is global in its content and the fact they are located in the heart of an incredibly international city.

Global research

Lee Wildman from Queen Mary University of London explained how being an international university also affects the type of research they carry out: “Our research is hugely international in its scope, influencing global public policy and debate. We conduct collaborative international research, participate in international conferences and have links with many leading universities overseas. Our academics draw on this research – and these contacts – in their teaching.”

Jenny Grinter from the University of Essex agreed their international outlook directly impacted on their research around the world: “An international outlook is in our DNA and our teaching and research focuses on global issues and challenges. Our academics are making an impact on policy and practice around the world. From our human rights work helping refugees to preserving coral reefs in Indonesia, our staff and students are determined to make a real impact in the world.”

Links with other universities and partners

Stuart Croft - University of Warwick

Stuart Croft – University of Warwick

The University of Warwick’s new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Croft, told us how being an international university has helped Warwick develop strong links with other universities: “Our most recent additional  international  activities have seen us develop close relationships with Monash University in Australia and partnerships in New York and California, but there are many  other long established international relationships at Warwick. To give just one example one can look at the very close association between WMG here at Warwick and India.”

Mark Spearing from the University of Southampton told us it is such connections that truly make them an international institution:  “Our partnerships, which are crucial to realising our ambition to change the world for the better, are helping to develop the globally oriented workforce of the future and improving the lives of individuals and communities worldwide by increasing the reach of our research and linking with international policy makers, industry and other external stakeholders. For example, the University of Southampton is a founder member of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), a leading global higher education and research network made up of 18 universities, spanning 11 countries on five continents. Together they drive international research collaboration and address issues of global significance.”

soton malaysia

As well as that, Mark told us they also have International strategic partnerships through their Malaysia campus (USMC), educational collaborations with Dalian Polytechnic University and Xiamen University in China and research partnerships with universities from all around the world, from Pennsylvania State University to the University of Auckland and the University of Cape Town to the University of Bergen.

Jenny Grinter from the University of Essex told us how their links with other universities benefit their students: “We also enable students to widen their experience by encouraging them to undertake a period of study abroad at one of our 150 partner institutions around the world. We also offer language tuition for all at no extra cost. This commitment to internationalism is important in our global recruitment of students and staff, and in forging research and education collaborations with prestigious universities around the world.”

Strong support system

Hayley Simpson from the Royal Holloway University of London told us how creating a strong support system is crucial for international universities: “Royal Holloway has a long history of supporting international students, both before and after they make an application to study at Royal Holloway. Staff make regular visits overseas throughout the year to provide information and guidance to prospective students, including entry requirements and international equivalents, scholarship information, and to answer general questions about what life is really like as a student in the UK and at Royal Holloway.”

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

She added: “At Royal Holloway we also have a comprehensive international student support system, which includes access to a range of specialist academic, health and pastoral services. We have a dedicated International Student Support Office who are on hand to provide advice and support on matters such as immigration, airport collection, day trips and events, as well as guidance with welfare issues to ensure that international students settle well into their new life at Royal Holloway. Royal Holloway also has a diverse range of clubs and societies which reflect its diversity on campus, from the Nordic Society to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, amongst many others.”

It is clear from many of the views expressed above that a truly international university is defined by its partnerships and effective networks across the globe. From student recruitment to research a university requires a clear vision and a defined global strategy to flourish on the world stage. In this regard understanding the motivations and aspirations of home and international students is undoubtedly a critical factor. Perhaps one of the most interesting points from the discussion is the increasing need for universities to effectively engage with international students at source.

In the second part of this blog we will be examining the benefits of being an international university and whether the UK should be doing more to attract students from overseas.

Part Two of HE Viewpoints will be available in April! Signup to our newsletter below for the latest.