Leader: Cheap deals Down Under?

August 3, 2007

Universities in Australasia have never been timid about promoting themselves to overseas students. They have long been aggressive - and successful competitors to UK institutions for the large and lucrative Asian student market. Now, it seems, British universities will increasingly have to contend with them on the home front, too.

It is undeniable that more and more young Britons are opting to study for their degree in other English-speaking countries. They have come to the same conclusion as thousands of their overseas peers: that the land of soaring sterling and towering tuition fees is not as attractive a place to learn as other, cheaper, often sunnier, destinations. They might also consider the point made by the Council for Industry in Higher Education: that employers look favourably on graduates who have taken the opportunity to study abroad. Wrap that up in an alluring marketing package, and UK universities might have the beginnings of something to worry about: Bondi or Bournemouth, Perth or Paisley?

Fortunately, UK universities are not in the same position as our cricket or rugby teams. The home side retains some big advantages. The first is cost. However expensive higher education in this country looks at first glance, it comes with an impressive list of financial supports. Most prospective students enlisting in a course in Australia or the US will not have access to the panoply of grants and loans available here. And they will have to pay tuition fees upfront. And health insurance. And travel costs.

As to the perceived advantage internationally educated graduates have in the jobs market, what employers really value is experience of learning in a non English speaking environment, particularly India, China or mainland Europe. But perhaps UK higher education's biggest advantage can be found in the reasons why Australian universities are targeting British students: life is tough in their traditional markets. What at first sight appears to be a daring foray into a new market may instead suggest weakness in an existing one.

UK universities can learn much from their innovative, organised and market savvy Australian counterparts. But as a British Council survey found last year, they still have few peers when it comes to academic reputation. The climate in Bournemouth and Paisley is, after all, remarkably invigorating.

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