Open the transfer window

June 7, 2012

Pious platitudes should not obscure the current realities about international education in the UK. It is a largely commercial operation, synonymous with the recruitment of full fee-paying students from outside the European Union. This represents an important source of income for an under-resourced system: Universities UK has estimated that in 2007-08, 13 per cent of the sector's earnings came from overseas students.

That is all very well. However, little is being done to create opportunities for British undergraduates beyond the borders of Europe.

On the Continent, Britons can, of course, participate in Erasmus and other intra-European mobility programmes, but there are factors that reduce those opportunities. Most obviously, our education system has lamentably failed to teach our youth other languages competently. We are, in American senator Paul Simon's words, no less "tongue-tied" than our anglophone contemporaries in the US. This is, of course, a massive constraint on the effective development of an internationalised higher education system. The current ratio of incoming to outgoing students in the UK is about 25:1. This ratio should be cause for national shame.

That said, some disciplines require students to study (or work) abroad as part of their undergraduate education. The largest in this context is modern languages; American studies and others may also require a year abroad.

In most cases, students who study abroad are also customarily required to sit four-year degrees. Thus, an American studies major from a British university may have to spend an academic year at a US institution and take a full load of classes. However, the credits earned there are not recognised back home.

The appearance (and illusion) of credit accumulation and transfer systems is quite widespread (although far from universal). Transfer within the undergraduate experience is, nevertheless, an extreme rarity. There is little such mobility even within the UK, and almost no possibility of transferring credit from one domestic institution to another, let alone from an overseas to a domestic one.

The capacity to transfer credit from one institution to another is a key mechanism that enables student mobility within and across borders. In these islands, credit transfer is a myth, not a functioning reality.

In the UK, international education is (except among a few of the righteous) an empty rhetorical flourish rather than a meaningful reality.

Michael Woolf, Deputy president for strategic development, CAPA International Education

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