Work harder to bring inmore Bulgarian leaders

March 1, 2002

Educating foreign students brings many benefits. Denis MacShane says we must strive to attract more of them.

Just before Christmas the Bulgarian Socialist Party elected a new president. Sergei Stanishev, the party's young, modernising leader, joins the ranks of a growing elite that includes Bill Clinton, Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, the former Mongolian prime minister and the many other political leaders around the world who have studied at British universities.

Education and training are a major British success story. Our universities, colleges and schools generate more than £8 billion a year in export income. Each year almost 200,000 overseas students in this country, compared with 160,000 in France, and contribute about £5 billion to the economy. Much of this funds jobs and further investment in the sector. The long-term benefits of this network of influence are incalculable.

We already hold almost a quarter of the market for international tertiary education. Two million UK qualifications are being studied for in other countries, generating more potential students for our institutions in the process. The global demand for high-quality education in English is enormous, and growing. The United Kingdom is well placed to benefit.

But as demand grows for quality education, so does the competition, and not just from other English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia. Increasing numbers of universities in other European Union countries are offering tuition in English, and our universities and colleges must be able to compete effectively in the international marketplace if they are to retain their competitive edge.

We want to make this country the destination for quality of study and the quality of welcome to international students. Two years on from the launch of Tony Blair's international student initiative, we have made good progress. Visa procedures have been streamlined. All students can now work for up to 20 hours a week in term time. It is easier for students to stay on after their studies for work experience. We plan to make it easier still.

Numbers of non-European students in higher education institutions are up 6 per cent. For some countries the increase has been dramatic. Two years ago about 9,000 students came here to study from China. This year the annual figure is set to reach 20,000.

But student numbers from many traditionally important countries are static or even declining. The government is alive to this and is taking action. With help from the private sector and universities, we increased the number of scholarships available under the flagship Chevening programme to 2,350 last year from 2,000 in 1999. Our target this year is 2,500, and 3,000 in 2005. Many leading companies support the programme, not for altruistic reasons but because they recognise the advantages of developing links today with the leaders of tomorrow.

Ultimately, success or failure in attracting more students will be down to the efforts of individual institutions. Marketing is everything. Education fairs are an important way of raising awareness in the international marketplace. Scholarships are another. We already offer jointly funded scholarships under the Chevening programme with a number of universities and colleges. The institutions can use these to promote particular courses, or to target specific countries. We would be pleased to offer more.

Increasing numbers of tomorrow's opinion-formers and decision-makers, however, are making increasingly sophisticated study decisions through research on the internet. Universities whose websites are not equal to the best in terms of the information they offer in an easy-to-access way will lose out. The leaders of tomorrow are also unimpressed by institutions that take several months to process applications. Speed in making decisions is of the essence. But in education as elsewhere, the old adage that "the best advertisement is a satisfied customer" holds good. Most of our education institutions know this only too well and offer a high-quality environment and attractive lifestyle for their overseas students. But in a competitive marketplace, continued attention to this remains important.

The government is determined not just to increase the numbers of overseas students here but to increase this country's share of this market. If we meet the targets the prime minister has set, more than £1 billion a year extra will flow into the UK, the bulk of it into the education sector - extra funding that will enable institutions to remain competitive in the global marketplace. We face a tall challenge but one that, by working together, we are confident we can meet. Together we must ensure that we continue to do everything possible to win for Britain the international benefits for our education system.

Denis MacShane is minister for cultural relations at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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