Surrey University's new China institute will help to put it on the international map

At which university did Led Zeppelin perform their first gig in 1968, the year that the university was establishing a 74-acre campus on the outskirts of a prosperous south-eastern town in the shadow of a great red-brick cathedral?

The answer, of course, is the University of Surrey, which has been educating students and building up a reputation for satellite research in Guildford for 40 years. The problem is that it has gone about its business in an unobtrusive way, attracting little attention, but establishing a solid name for itself in a disparate range of subjects, including sociology, psychology, physics, applied mathematics and Russian, Slavonic and various other East European languages.

It developed a big research park containing more than 110 companies, one of which, Surrey Satellite Technology, launched 27 satellites and has just been sold for £40m-50m. "We will spend the money wisely," says Professor Snowden, the vice-chancellor looking more solemn than usual. "The idea is not to fritter it away."

Getting on with things quietly is what universities should be good at, but Surrey could have done with a bit more of the heavy rock Led Zeppelin approach. The signs are that, from now on, the university will be more outgoing, if not funky and soulful, because it is pursuing a bold new policy to become a leading international institution by 2017.

This may sound overly ambitious for Surrey which, before it became a university, was a college of advanced technology, but Surrey is intensely serious about it – and is going about realising its ambition in typically thorough fashion. "We don't want to be a UK university just doing international activity but we want to be truly engaged in an international way," says Professor Christopher Snowden, the vice-chancellor, an eminent engineer and former captain of industry. "We want to make our activities overseas a fundamental part of the university."

Surrey's aim is to concentrate not on recruiting overseas students to Britain but on taking its teaching, research and enterprise operations onto the international stage. That means it is building up relationships with universities around the world – for example in the USA with the powerhouses of MIT and Caltech where the interaction will be mainly to do with research, and UCLA and North Carolina State, where there will be student exchanges, joint programmes and enterprise initiatives.

Surrey's dean of international relations, Professor Colin Grant, will shortly fly to Brazil with a view to establishing partnerships with some Brazilian universities, notably the University of Sao Paulo, one of the top universities in Latin America, and the State University of Campinas, a highly regarded science institution.

European universities have been slow to investigate the Brazilian market but Grant is in with a chance because he speaks Portuguese and used to teach in the country.

But the strongest evidence of Surrey's commitment to becoming a global institution is in China's rust belt where a Surrey International Institute has been launched with the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, one of the top universities in China. Since September 2007, the institute has been running programmes in management and computing for undergraduates and postgraduates in both countries who are given the chance to study for part of the time abroad. The only other British university to have done this kind of joint degree with a Chinese institution is Queen Mary, University of London.

So far, 125 Chinese students and one Turkish student have signed up for the Surrey programmes, paying fees of around £3,000 a year, more than they would pay in China but a lot less than if they came to Britain as overseas students. Next academic year, another 450 are expected to join. "The Chinese are very keen," says Snowden. "They think this is an incredibly fantastic thing to do. They're talking about student numbers in the region of 2,000 or so within a very short period of time."

The aim is for this institute to be the first of a collection of institutes that Surrey sets up around the world. Snowden hopes that the more confident and adventurous students will want to spend a semester studying in China, a semester in America and the rest in Britain.

This arrangement – a partnership with an overseas university – is not without cost to Surrey, but works out significantly less than setting up its own campus in China as Nottingham University has done. The Chinese have given Surrey a building in Dalian, the financial and IT centre of Manchuria in North-eastern China, which Snowden will be flying out to open in late September. It has had to pay to upgrade that structure but that is the limit of its capital outlay.

As well as setting up this institute in North-east China, the university has signed an agreement with the premier political science institute in the People's Republic, the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, which will be about joint research rather than teaching.

Countries next on the list for the Surrey treatment are Malaysia, India, South Korea and South Africa. The university has been having meetings with some of the Indian institutes of technology about partnerships with one or more of them. And it is not forgetting Europe, Germany in particular, and Turkey, where Grant will be heading in November.

"We are busy – and I think it's high time this university became busy internationally," he says.

"International education knows no frontiers. Students will have real mobility, opportunities to study in China, North America, possibly in South America and in Surrey."

People who think that all this is about making money for Surrey are mistaken. Grant emphasises that the university is not going to lose money on any of the partnerships but they are not a financial cash cow either. It is being done for intellectual reasons, he says. "It is about striving for excellence and international recognition and taking us into the top 100 universities in the world, whereas we are now 190th."

And the vice-chancellor points out that the university is getting very good students to study for Surrey degrees in China who would not otherwise have come to the United Kingdom. "That is a significant benefit for us," he says. "Also some will go on to study postgraduate degrees and will probably come here."

It has taken a lot of time and effort for the university to establish a presence abroad. Surrey has spent two and a half years getting to this point and Snowden is keen to point out that it has been no picnic.

He himself had experience of doing business in China as a result of running a company before he became vice-chancellor, and other staff at Surrey knew China.

You may ask what is in it for the Chinese. The answer is that their staff get exposure to the Western way of doing things, still a fairly novel thing. British academics benefit too.

"Most of our staff went into this being somewhat cautious, wondering what a Chinese city would be like and what Chinese people would be like to work with," says Snowden. "They come back having enjoyed the experience and wanting to spend longer there. The Chinese are good to work with and very keen to learn."

Snowden dismisses the notion that the British should not be giving away their ideas to the Chinese, who will run with them and beat us in global competition. "That's very inward- looking," he says.

"There are a lot of very clever Chinese people with capability and depth. We can learn from them, as well as them from us. If we don't provide the education they need, others will do so."

The changing face of the University of Surrey

History

Known as the Battersea College of Technology before it became a university, its roots go back to the Battersea Polytechnic Institute. Founded in 1891 to educate London's poorer inhabitants in science and technology, since 1968 it has been on a green field side outside Guildford.

Glittering alumnus

The engineer and car designer Sir Alec Issigonis, the man behind the Morris Minor, Mini and Austin 1100.

Who is the vc?

Engineer Professor Christopher Snowden, a Fellow of the Royal Society and expert in microwaves and semiconductors.

Main claims to fame

Satellites and the invention of the laser diode, which is inside all CD and DVD players. The latter is Nobel-prize-winning stuff, according to the vc. Hospitality and tourism management degrees started there.

How good is it?

For the past 10 years Surrey has had the best graduate employment record of any university. It came 29th in The Independent's league table of UK universities and 190th in the THES's international table.

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