Steady currents? Overseas student flows and the UK

More can be done in the UK to encourage study abroad, but the anglophone world may continue to attract the lion’s share, says David Willetts

February 4, 2016
Daniel Mitchell illustration (4 February 2016)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

About 2 per cent of the world’s university students travel abroad to study. That amounts to 4 million out of 200 million. A cautious estimate is that as the total number of students grows, the number studying abroad will expand at the same rate. But 2 per cent is pretty low when we are supposed to be in an age of globalisation. It is probably lower than the proportion of medieval students who travelled abroad to study, forming their own “nations” in Europe’s early universities. So we must hope and expect that the numbers will grow more sharply.

Where will they be travelling to and why? Many of them currently go to the leading anglophone nations, where they enjoy the bonus of mastering English as part of their studies. But more and more universities around the world will be teaching at least some of their courses in English – in China last month I visited Tsinghua University and Zhejiang University, both of which are doing just that. And if parents in Muslim countries want their children to stay in the Muslim world, there is the increasingly popular option of study in the Gulf or Malaysia. Parents, who may well be funding these students, look for places that will be safe and secure – on which measure, interestingly, the UK scores highly. When students are borrowing the money to pay for their studies, they look to post-study work as a way of paying off the loan – and in this the UK is now more restrictive than our major competitors. In Germany, for example, that extra time when overseas students stay on to work is regarded as the period during which they make their biggest economic contribution because they pay taxes on their earnings and help German firms to access overseas markets.

The challenge is to get students from anglophone countries such as the UK to study abroad. Only 30,000 or so British students do so, compared with 500,000 coming to the UK. You could argue that this is entirely understandable. Our students speak what is becoming the global language. They get to understand the wider world because our own country is open and international. But that would be a comforting illusion. We need the window on the world that comes from mastering a foreign language. One reason that we as a nation are poor at exporting is that we lack the ability truly to understand another country by speaking its language. And you always learn so much when you move to a different environment.

It is possible that the low numbers of UK students abroad are the result not of their being particularly insular but rather of their facing specific barriers, which could be removed if policy changed. So, for example, the UK does not provide tuition fee loans for those studying abroad, whereas many other countries sending their students here do offer some kind of public support. It would encourage overseas governments to do even more to send their students to us if we could show that we were doing more to send our students to them.

We also lack big international higher education chains, in which students can do the same course at different education centres across the world. The ones that are emerging – Kaplan, Laureate and Amity Group, for example – are not British because we have not historically promoted that model of higher education. Some of our universities are part of emerging networks of linked universities, but the restriction on the portability of fee loans does make it harder to operate such groupings.

Universities could be more flexible in crediting time studying abroad – or at least not penalising it. Last month, I met a young Brit who had wanted to spend a year in China and eventually had to drop out of his university course to do so. Accreditation of time studying abroad follows on from the growth of trust between academics in different countries, and we can hope that the Newton Fund for joint research initiatives with academics from developing countries, in whose funding the government announced a doubling last week, will promote the development of more such interchange.

However, we may have to accept that there is an asymmetry in the movement of students in and out of anglophone countries. Overseas students coming in are looking for immersion in English and are attracted by the prestige not just of individual universities but by the strength and reputation of the sector as a whole. UK students going overseas may be looking for a shorter opportunity to learn more about a different country. Summer programmes, internships and work experience in leading international businesses can be the best ways to get more British students abroad.

Lord Willetts is visiting professor at King’s College London and chairs the advisory board of Times Higher Education. This article is based on a keynote speech he gave at THE’s MENA Universities Summit at United Arab Emirates University this week.

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