Leader: Golden goose has to be nurtured

December 19, 2003

At the end of a year of debilitating uncertainty for higher education, there are some positive messages to be found in the British Council's research on overseas students. They may not like the rain and three-quarters of them consider the courses expensive, but most still associate UK universities with high quality. Even the IDP, Australian universities' overseas marketing arm, believes that four times as many foreign students could be attracted to Britain by 2015.

That growth is likely to accelerate rapidly if the government's fees package for home students fails to live up to expectations in the new year.

Whether because the legislation falls, or because the changes needed to win over Labour rebels eat away at the financial benefits for higher education, the first reaction of many universities would be to look abroad for relief.

University College London is already thinking of tilting the balance of its intake further towards overseas students, and similar proposals are in the air at Oxford and Cambridge universities. But the overseas option is not limited to the elite: only the London School of Economics has more non-European Union students than Middlesex University, and several other new universities feature among the main recruiters.

However, there are dangers as well as opportunities in the overseas market.

The council's Mori poll shows that the British experience already proves a disappointment for some foreigners, and it would be easy to kill the goose that lays the golden egg if universities simply try to pack more in.

Institutions must be able to offer the necessary support for students to adapt to a different style of learning, and criticisms in the survey of inflexibility should serve as a reminder that those who pay high fees will expect a similar level of service. If British universities are to embark on the level of expansion in overseas numbers that the IDP predicts, there will have to be considerable investment. The British Council - so often the poor relation of diplomacy, despite the proven financial returns from its work - will need a substantial injection of funds to carry out the necessary marketing. Competition from the US and Australia cannot be ignored if British universities are to fulfil their potential in recruiting the most able candidates around the globe.

Equally important, universities must be able to gear up for expansion if they are not to breed resentment. The council's poll shows that two-thirds of international officers believe their universities could cope with only a few more students from overseas. But displacing home students with those who can pay high fees is a counsel of desperation, not a course that any university would wish to pursue.

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