This article was published in Times Higher Education 31 October 2013 under the title International treasure

It is clear that the UK government sees international higher education as a key potential source of income for the country and that it is ambitious for growth. Take, for example, the international education strategy published this summer by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which argues that it is “realistic” for the UK’s international student numbers to grow by as much as 20 per cent over five years, equating to an extra 90,000 students.

But while the opportunity to gain income from overseas students looks enticing, the challenge may prove daunting to universities – and not only because of the mixed messages that the UK is sending to overseas students about just how welcome they really are.

Britain’s universities have of course welcomed overseas students for many years. Some have now established campuses overseas or are offering massive open online courses. But the government wants them to go further, via more international collaboration between institutions, more public/private partnerships and an entrepreneurial attitude towards meeting the educational needs of other countries.

Universities with experience of overseas marketing may assume that they can build on previous successes. But becoming a truly global brand is a very complex undertaking. A go-it-alone marketing campaign is unlikely to be affordable for the majority of institutions, which may have to settle for co-branding strategies.

Another route to international expansion is to offer “white label” courses delivered and branded by local third parties, and accredited by the UK institution. The government has suggested that universities tailor-make vocational courses to suit foreign requirements, but the danger here is of being perceived as a mere supplier of educational services, which goes against the academic grain and could lead to reputational damage.

Historically, most UK universities have simply let students from all over the globe beat a path to their door, and being partially or even quintessentially “British” has been part of their appeal. But this approach may not be sustainable in an environment in which students increasingly place competitive advantage in the employment market above the importance of academic excellence or even the student experience. Brands that employ medieval heraldry (City University London) or references to architectural features on campus (the University of Leeds) may not play well in such a context.

UK universities must reflect their individuality while promoting the value of a British educational experience in and of itself. A good example of this approach lies in Qatar, where six US universities and one French institution have clustered in Doha’s Education City. They have been joined by University College London, which offers postgraduate programmes specifically focused on “high-level research into heritage issues of relevance to the Arab and Islamic world”. In doing so, UCL seems to be following the government’s suggestion to tailor-make courses to suit other nations’ requirements, while claiming consistency with its own brand positioning as “London’s global university”. (Earlier this month, the university’s new head, Michael Arthur, said that he planned to adapt the institution’s international strategy while remaining true to UCL’s “history and values”.)

A radical option open to the best-known UK universities would be to seek to reposition themselves as global “mega-brands”. This appears to be the idea behind the decision to integrate a number of French institutions under the world-famous Sorbonne name. Similar examples have been set by art institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre, which have effectively franchised their brands beyond their home countries. This might involve agreements that allow foreign governments or institutions to use the university’s name under licence, but with conditions in place to safeguard academic standards and reputation.

In future, the higher education landscape may no longer divide into the “old” universities and the “new”, but rather split between those focused on the home market and the truly international players, just as has happened in the corporate sector. This may become the new “binary line”, and institutions will need to decide on which side their future lies.