International velvet

July 1, 2010

Andy Masheter clearly recognises the dangers that could arise if UK universities engage in the "reckless exploitation of the overseas market" (Opinion, 24 June). I strongly believe, however, that UK universities have made a tremendous success of their internationalisation policies over the past 20 years. In the midst of the gloom and doom naturally arising from the debate about the sector's future funding, we should remember this success and celebrate it.

Like Masheter, I attended international-recruitment exhibitions in the days when the words of Rhodes Boyson on the academy's relationship with the taxpayer were still reverberating throughout Whitehall, when university colleagues were still divided as to the propriety of "selling" to international students courses in employment-related areas such as law, business and engineering. Of course, mistakes were made, as the concept of marketing was relatively new to the sector: with no real knowledge of overseas students' needs or expectations, it was easy for a "when in Rome" philosophy to prevail. Forty years of UK Council for International Student Affairs' activity has heightened our perceptions.

We have developed so much since those pioneering days.

The Prime Minister's Initiative 1 in 1999 primarily encouraged the achievement of higher international-student targets, but PMI2 in 2006 focused on partnerships and intellectual capacity. The British Council, in projects such as the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, has made public its commitment to joint international activity. Universities UK has established a high-profile International Unit. Global consortia such as Universitas 21 and the World University Network have bolstered collaboration, benchmarking and mobility.

Our institutions, for whatever motive, have embraced the concept of the student experience. They are evaluated not only by the National Student Survey, but also through the activities of i-graduate and the International Student Barometer. These measures have created a real interest in student feedback.

Our sector now competes with the other major English-speaking countries, our European neighbours and the Asian tigers. We are second in international-recruitment statistics only to the US and have a higher ratio of international-to-domestic students. We are at the forefront of transnational education activities that establish overseas campuses and articulation programmes, thus allowing a broader socio-economic range of equally competent international students to access British university qualifications.

The UK is highly placed as a research partner with leading institutions across the world. Our capacity building and ambassadorial activities are well recognised.

Internationalisation policy is frequently integrated with research, teaching objectives and employer engagement, and is embedded in the university experience for international and domestic staff and students. International pedagogy is being explored through the funded Teaching International Students Project. The continuing professional development of those engaged in internationalisation is being stimulated by new master's courses and innovative technology.

None of us should be complacent, as we still have far to go. Nor should we be overconfident about what lies ahead, particularly when the financial health of some institutions seems dependent on the fees generated from international students. We should, however, be aware of how far we have travelled and how much it behoves us not to sell ourselves short nor to undervalue our success. As Masheter concludes: "reputation is hard won but easily lost".

Christine Humfrey, Special professor of international higher education University of Nottingham, Visiting Fellow, Edge Hill University.

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