The 'international' University of Sunderland

The running of economies in nations overseas, as well as the balance sheets of businesses big and small in the North East, could stand to gain from change underway at Sunderland University, says BQ's Brian Nicholls.

Advances being introduced to studies and research at Sunderland University are going to benefit not only students on campus there but also businesses of the North East, as well as students studying thousands of miles away - and the countries they come from.

The Wearside university has about 5,500 students following its curricula on its programmes abroad, and at any given time may be inputting to 90 countries.

‌Shirley Atkinson, the university’s interim vice-chancellor and chief executive, tells BQ: "We try to bring connectivity with the North East, even though the students may be studying in Singapore, Tashkent or Trinidad. Some then come and visit, and engage in the wider university agendas, become entrepreneurial themselves and want to retain connections. We have alumni globally now who are in the most incredible roles."

Kenya, Vietnam, London

A group who came from Kenya last year is being followed by a second party this summer, and she herself has recently returned from Vietnam. David Puttnam the film producer and educator, who was Sunderland University’s first Chancellor, is now a government envoy in Asia and the contacts with the university continue.

"We have in the past had more than 2,000 students in Vietnam studying our university programmes," Atkinson says. "These were around banking and finance when Vietnam decided it wanted to build a banking and finance sector as part of their economy."

Delivery there began in 2009. "Of course countries and economies move on. Now they have enough banking and finance graduates so they’re starting to talk to us more about engineering, and how we can help create a supply chain of graduates in the making of things as they try to rebuild their manufacturing."  

The London campus last year had 2,300 international students studying Sunderland University programmes at Canary Wharf. Competition for foreign students and the fees they bring in is fierce. "It’s a tricky market to work in," she admits. "But we’ve been there for a long time. So that helps a lot. We talk only around areas where we have expertise. We wouldn’t sell a big research agenda for example.

"But we will sell the fact we can help with manufacturing and supply chain, engineering – all the stuff we do incredibly well through, for example, Nissan and the supply chain here. We have history we can talk to them about, and then in terms of skill development through supply chain to postgraduate and research level. We can talk about things we’re doing with Hitachi at the moment."

The university has 20 collaborative partners overseas but avoids investing in campus estate abroad. "All you would need is a bit of political turbulence, then it’s all gone overnight," she points out.


Being far flung like this, does the university have concerns or challenges about its branding outside the North East? How can someone studying in London feel affiliation to Sunderland? "A student coming to London, once on campus there, is in no doubt he or she is with the University of Sunderland. The campus is hugely and heavily branded. The programmes there are those delivered in Sunderland, and are overseen by academics from Sunderland. Staff running the campus operation are from the university here. They took the option to work in London."

Often the students there visit Sunderland for the graduation ceremony, and stay to look around the city. Master classes and professorial lectures running in Sunderland are broadcast in London too. And in the intense financial district of Canary Wharf the university has a business development manager who is in touch with businesses there to get opportunities for projects as part of BAs or post-graduate studies. Because links with hotel chains in London are strong, there’s a Masters in tourism and hospitality to be had there.

The international students can’t get paid work due to visa restrictions, but they can benefit and gain experience from placements as part of their overall learning. Contacts are also nurtured with the big banks to help students of accounting and finance.

Promoting the brand overseas is more difficult because the university may be working with an institution overseas that has its own vision, purpose and values. "Before we collaborate with anyone we do a screening exercise," Shirley Atkinson explains. "We also have an extensive due diligence process, concerning the partner institution’s vision, values and inclusivity so that students of different backgrounds but of the right abilities can come onto the programmes. They have to fit."

The university has also run a leadership development programme for 80 senior staff of Nissan from mainland Europe and Asia including India and the Middle East.


In the North East, small and medium size firms could stand to gain through higher standards evident in future graduate placement. Many such firms have already taken on placement graduates in marketing and others bright and keen to challenge established work practice.

"We’ve had some amazing results from this," Shirley Atkinson says. "Most end up working full time where they’re placed - a fresh pair of eyes, a different way of examining a problem. We asked employers why some of them are sometimes reluctant to participate. They didn’t want to carry employment risk. So two years ago we created an intern factory. We employ the graduates and carry that risk as we place them with a business.

"They pay to have them but needn’t worry about having an employee on their books. No equal pay issues, for example.  We discuss with businesses their needs. We screen and interview our graduates, then present two or three a firm might want to consider.

"The graduates have one shot. If employers after six months are not going to keep a graduate they take another. It becomes a bit of a rolling programme. Any risks for us, we just deal with. We employ 1,700 people ourselves. Having 30 graduates mixed in, they become part of our overall management of employees.

"But we do close areas of activity no longer of interest to students, where there’s no potential to grow them."

The £8m creation of an Enterprise and Innovation Hub and a FabLab, and a £6m investment building on the university’s reputation for pharmacy and pharmaceuticals are two of the advances at Sunderland that will benefit both students and businesses of all sizes.

The university has about 11,000 students on two campuses in Sunderland (including about 4,000 non-UK students), 5,500 studying overseas through strategic partnerships with 17 partners in 12 countries, the 2,300 mentioned in London, and about 400 in further education colleges of the North East. It has 1,500 staff working from Sunderland,  London, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Greece.

It is collaborating with Sunderland Software City and is creating a university technical college at Newton Aycliffe for young people aged from 14 to 19 which differs in concept and characteristics from any other kind of college. It will be strongly attuned to engineering.

A Business Lunch interview with Shirley Atkinson appears in the current North East BQ.