Leader: Pricey UK must not rest on laurels

December 8, 2006

For all the official warnings against overreliance on the fees of overseas students, there has been a comfortable assumption in much of UK higher education that a combination of the English language, high standards and relatively short courses will be enough to keep ahead of the competition.

But two reports this week should remind universities that success in this vital field cannot be taken for granted. First, the British Council signalled the likelihood of a new wave of foreign universities setting up in the UK, and then an international survey by Hobsons suggested that fee levels were already at the top end of what many students were prepared to pay.

There were some encouraging findings in Hobsons' student survey - particularly on the academic standing of UK universities, which matched and in some cases exceeded universities in the US. And although some prospective applicants saw them as too traditional and "posh", it did not prevent them running the US a close second on overall desirability. Perceptions of service levels were less positive, but it was in the area of finance that the warning signs were most obvious. Even though many prospective students seriously underestimated the cost of studying in Britain, they still saw future debt as the biggest barrier to pursuing an application.

Competition for overseas students has been hotting up in recent years, with Australian universities leading the way in the professionalism of their marketing, German institutions stepping up their efforts with some success, and the Americans beginning to recover some of the ground they lost through inflexible visa regulations. If British Council officials are correct, the competition may soon be stiffer still as foreign universities open up in London and elsewhere. One private university from Malaysia may not pose much of a threat, but a string of such ventures might seriously undermine recruitment in key countries.

A strong attendance at the council's Going Global conference showed that UK universities are aware of the importance of putting the right message across to overseas applicants. Academic and non-academic jobs depend on it.

Universities have had plenty of advice on the subject - from curtailing the activities of agents to maximising employment opportunities for overseas students - but none of it will matter if excessive fees are perceived as putting UK courses beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest families.

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