Brave new territory: University College London to open a branch in Australia

Forget China. The next international education hotspot could be Adelaide, South Australia, population 1.1 million. Today, University College London, one of Britain's top 10 higher-education institutions, is signing an agreement to establish a branch there, becoming one of the first British universities to open an outpost Down Under.

The move, which comes after Cranfield University's decision to set up a presence in Adelaide, shows how vital it is for UK universities to establish campuses around the world, so that their names gain currency abroad and they are seen as international players.

UCL, like Cranfield, has been invited in by Mike Rann, the premier of South Australia, who wants the city to become an educational hub for the continent.

The aim is for the campus to shape how the critical issues of energy development and use are tackled globally. UCL joins other institutions that have set up abroad, such as the University of Nottingham, with campuses in Malaysia and China, Queen Mary, University of London, which has a joint course with a Chinese institution, and the University of Liverpool, which is now working with a Chinese campus.

The US university Carnegie Mellon, famous for technology, engineering, business and computer science, was the first foreign institution to arrive in Adelaide. It set up shop in 2006. All these universities are being housed in the Torrens Building on Victoria Square in the middle of the city.

"We have been looking around the world to see which are the strategic areas," says Professor Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost, who has brokered the deal. "The premier of South Australia is enlightened and committed to making Adelaide into an educational centre. He is keen to bring in highly skilled immigrants from around the world, and we can help with that vision."

Professor Malcolm Grant, UCL's president and provost, is today signing an agreement with Mike Rann to open the UCL school of energy and resources, which will take up to 60 international students on a two-year Masters programme, and will also offer a range of executive programmes tailored to the needs of senior executives and engineering managers.

South Australia is rich in natural resources, and UCL, which claims to have the largest number of legal experts in energy and employment issues in the UK, will bring an interdisciplinary approach to energy management. "We won't just be addressing how you drill for oil or gas; we will be looking at the geopolitical, cultural and legal issues surrounding energy extraction and consumption," says Worton.

The £14,000-a-year degree is unusual for a British Masters in that it takes two years. In the second year, students will do a nine-month work placement – partly an internship and partly a research project.

"This is not going to be a money-spinner," says Worton. "It will make a small profit when we get to the end of the contract, and that money will be ploughed back into the school." Under the agreement, the campus will operate for seven years. It is hoped it will be self-financing after that.

However, the University of Adelaide, the most highly regarded institution in the city, has asked why the state government needed to look abroad.

The answer must be that foreign universities will bring fresh ideas to a city that struggles to hold its own with Sydney and Melbourne. Both UCL and Carnegie Mellon are also highly rated in the international league tables – UCL especially so. By bringing them to Adelaide, the state will attract the best students both from within Australia and internationally, and put the city on the map.

The South Australian government is refurbishing the listed Torrens Building as its education hub at a cost of £2m, and is putting more money into supporting the school's set-up and operation. The new campus will open up in 2009, and become fully operational in 2010. Lecturers will be flown out, plus there will be a small academic staff in Adelaide.

The idea is to have a programme closely tied to the world of industry and work. "UCL is committed to working to solve real-world problems, and we relish the opportunity to work not only with the South Australian government, but also with Australian and international energy companies," says Worton. "The state of South Australia has enormously important energy resources and a far-sighted vision for the sustainable consumption of energy.

He adds: "Transnational education is changing the way that students and professionals study and develop their skills. Through our Adelaide campus, UCL will give a global lead on industry-focused research and teaching in a global context."

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