Leader: More than money is at stake

Exploiting foreign students may briefly bolster balance sheets, but such disrespectful treatment will cause long-term damage

April 22, 2010

A "very ill-founded, ill-judged and irresponsible set of allegations". This is how Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, described British Council claims that some overseas students in the UK "are not having as good an experience as they expect", and that some universities were "not so good" in their approach to foreign students.

Professor Riordan, speaking recently on Radio 4's Today programme, was representing higher education as chair of Universities UK's International Policy Committee. Naturally - and rightly - he was protective of a sector that generates £4 billion in annual export earnings. His exasperation was no doubt heightened by the fact that the claims came from Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, whose job is to promote UK education abroad, not denigrate it.

But Mr Davidson's comments were hardly outrageous, and his message was measured and sensible. He simply warned of the long-term damage that could be done if UK universities respond to the current financial predicament by exploiting overseas students as little more than quick and easy sources of income.

Some facts cannot be ignored. Although Professor Riordan is correct that the vast majority of overseas students here are happy, too many find themselves on courses made up almost entirely of other overseas students - hardly the multicultural experience they were seeking. Too many are let down by agents making false promises and by prospectuses painting deceptively rosy pictures of what they will get for their high fees. And for too many students, their first experience of the UK is the labyrinthine, painful and decidedly unwelcoming bureaucracy of the visa process.

It takes only a few bad experiences to cause real and lasting damage, as word spreads quickly over the internet and nations that have invested in strengthening their higher education systems offer increasingly attractive alternatives to the UK.

Our lead feature this week tells a pertinent and timely tale. In Australia, where university funding has failed woefully to keep pace with expanding student numbers (despite domestic students contributing to the cost of their tuition), some institutions now rely on international student fees not simply to bolster their coffers but actually to stay afloat.

While Australian higher education as a sector earns 15 per cent of its income from overseas students, that figure rises to about 33 per cent at some institutions, and the range of supply countries is narrow.

The student safety crisis caused by a recent spate of horrendous attacks on Indian students has served to highlight Australia's vulnerability.

It has also spurred a call to reconsider the status of foreign students. The concept, as outlined by Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, should be a basic tenet for every nation aspiring to be a global higher education centre.

His forthcoming research shatters the marketing myths and shows a rather different picture, across all anglophone nations, of the isolated, excluded and too often disenfranchised foreign student. He makes a convincing case for an approach in which we stop treating overseas students as purchasers of a service who are accorded some limited consumer rights, and start seeing them as what they are: people who are due the full complement of human rights.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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