Internationalisation costs more than tuition fees

Filling campuses with lucrative overseas students does little to internationalise domestic students’ experience, says Peter Brady

July 15, 2020
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As universities consider what will be the “new normal” for internationalisation, they should also be honest about the old normal.

In the pre-coronavirus normal, internationalisation strategies failed home students abjectly. Government strategies in the UK, Australia and Canada were at the heart of this failure, being firmly based on the notion of using overseas students as cash cows. There was little mention or funding of internationalisation at home or study abroad. Instead, governments and universities concentrated on international branding.

It was successful and contributed significant revenue. It allowed governments to reduce direct funding or expand their sectors without having to pay for it. But there was no sense that the influx of overseas students should provide any sort of an international education to home undergraduates.

Among the main destinations for international students, only the US operated differently. It did not view international students primarily as walking wallets; it even banned the use of recruitment agents. Instead, it has sought to expand study abroad – although, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, this was seen as a means to aid national security as much as provide educational opportunities.

In 2005, the Lincoln Commission was set up with the aim of sending one million students overseas, stating that study abroad could help “protect our borders, and defend our interest abroad.” Although the required funding for this grand aim never materialised, the broader benefits of overseas study were clearly acknowledged by individual US universities.

Other countries developed strategies to ensure that their home students would get an international education. Sweden, for instance, developed metrics to measure internationalisation within campuses, while Malaysia and China encouraged foreign universities to participate in their systems.

While it is true that some UK and Australian universities developed more international syllabuses, foreign recruitment remained the main goal. University courses were determined not by national need, but by institutional greed.

It meant that business schools became bigger and bigger as they responded to demand from China, while master’s degrees in electronic engineering ran for cohorts that consisted only of Indian students. When the UK had quotas to encourage STEM subjects, less prestigious universities used students from elsewhere in the European Union to fill their places because they were counted as home students – ignoring the broader academic, social and political needs of society.

Survey after survey, meanwhile, showed that the presence of so many international students on UK campuses did not make home students’ experience any more international.

In the new normal, the market for international students should be controlled. Cut-throat competition between universities should be discouraged by developing a quota system for international students. This should be based on national priorities and local needs. For instance, it may be desirable to have a geographic spread of international students or a wish for students in certain subjects to have direct experience with foreign students and professionals.

These quotas would allow each government to dictate the shape of its higher education sector. International development funding or government grants could be used to meet quotas from those countries that were national priorities. Those institutions accessing this funding would be obliged to use some of it for enhancing study abroad.

The UK now has a target for incoming overseas students (600,000 by 2030) and it must also have a similar one (with appropriate funding attached) for study abroad, including targets for students at vocational level and schools. After all, it is not only graduates who will need to have an international outlook in the future.

Any internationalisation strategy should also learn from other higher education systems. For instance, the Chinese government’s encouragement of partnerships between its own universities and those in the US and Europe has led to joint colleges and programmes within China focusing on the country’s own priorities. A third of these programmes are taught in English by foreign faculty; the remaining two-thirds follow the Chinese syllabus.

Western universities could, in turn, run joint degrees with Chinese universities, but taught in the UK, Australia and even – geopolitical tensions permitting – in the US. Maybe home students could be taught partly in Chinese, by academics from China. That way, they would gain a degree but also a deep knowledge of the Chinese system and the Chinese way of working, as well as the language.

That would be real internationalisation at home – and far less expensive than study abroad.

Peter Brady is an independent higher education consultant. His book Internationalisation of UK post 92 Universities: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has just been published by Anthem Press. 

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Reader's comments (2)

The impact of pre-coronavirus internationalisation strategy on University staff should also not be underestimated. As Finance Departments frantically try and forecast whether the revenue lost from international students for the next academic year will be in the 10's or 100's of millions, fixed term staff are not having their contracts renewed and voluntary then compulsory redundancy schemes will inevitably be implemented. Whilst having a multi-national student cohort is a model to be embraced, putting too many eggs in the international student basket has clearly been a strategic failure by University leaders, given that there seems to have been no risk mitigation plan in place to address the situation we currently find ourselves in. The author talks about having a quota system for international students and maybe this model should also be considered to ensure the financial sustainability of our Universities going forward, particularly as large numbers are key employers in many areas and their existence contributes significantly to the local economy.
Some of us were saying this 20 years ago, too many business people on governing bodies only interested in the bottom line. As for the septics, as anyone who travels, even if only occasionally internationally, soon discovers, the brash, loud and obnoxious septics do more harm than good for US international relations, almost as much as the equally ignorant and arrogant fuerdai do for China's.