Leader: Academe must heed hidden message of 9/11

June 14, 2002

Only a few weeks ago, British higher education was celebrating a big increase in the number of applications from overseas students. No matter what difficulties there might be with prime minister Tony Blair's 50 per cent participation plans at home, here was one target on which real progress was being made.

This week's research by the British Council on the attitudes of young people in predominantly Muslim countries should sound a cautionary note, however. Australia, Canada and Japan have all gained in popularity at the expense of Britain and the US since September 11. Some reaction to events in Afghanistan and the Middle East was inevitable, but the survey suggests that the trend was already established.

Britain's perceived subservience to the US was a source of concern, particularly in the Middle East, while its traditional reputation for high-quality education did little to mitigate the situation. Labels such as "serious", "solid" and "disciplined" amount to damning with faint praise, while studying in the US was considered more dangerous but also more fun. Where educational standards were considered comparable, students were inclined to opt for a more neutral country nearer home. The exercise suggests that, for all the efforts of recent years, universities and colleges need to spread their message more widely. In Malaysia and Nigeria, the Muslim group contains two of the dozen countries currently sending the largest number of students to Britain, as well as natural constituents such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mr Blair is pushing on an open door in exhorting universities to recruit more overseas students. They have always seen the benefits of an internationally diverse student population. The latest applications give cause for optimism, with demand increasing from Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan. But those surveyed by the council represent the future in an increasingly volatile global student market, in which an enlightened attitude to other cultures is an essential academic attribute.

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