Overseas policy must be more than a fig leaf

July 8, 2010

I applaud Andy Masheter's sentiments and endorse his warning ("Reckless exploitation of the overseas market will only end in tears", 24 June). I managed the first British Council recruitment missions and exhibitions in Malaysia in 1985 and 1986. Since then, I have been responsible for the recruitment of many thousands of overseas students for various British university consortia and individual institutions.

The tensions between financial need, academic quality and ethical recruitment practice existed in the 1980s, but have been exacerbated over the years by the pressures brought to bear by the funding equation.

It has always been possible to differentiate between universities that follow a balanced international strategy embracing bilateral partnerships with overseas institutions, research links, staff and student exchange schemes, foundation courses, feeder colleges and individual student recruitment, and those for which overseas student numbers and income - "the bottom line" - are paramount. But the pressures on directors of recruitment and international offices have increased, with targets driven by financial need rather than any sensible appraisal of strategy. It is not unknown for recruitment targets to be set by university finance committees that do not feature representatives from their international offices.

In these circumstances, global reputations are easily lost, but apparently there is a new magic formula to insure against this possibility. Even if all universities cannot aspire to be "global research universities", surely they are all now "internationalised"? The word "international" appears in virtually all post descriptions, and no university is without its "internationalisation" policy.

The reality is very different. My research indicates that these changes are essentially cosmetic in most institutions. The gulf between those with comprehensive international strategies and those with finance-driven recruitment policies cannot be camouflaged by the addition of the magic word "internationalisation".

True internationalisation requires a fundamental reappraisal and realignment of university priorities. It costs money. It is an essential investment for the future, which in these straitened times may seem to be an over-expensive option. Nevertheless, it has to be done.

Cosmetic change is not enough. The overseas customer, whose sensitivity has frequently been underestimated by our political leaders, though rarely, in my experience, by the hard-pressed international staff in our academy, will not be fooled. Internationalisation has to be real, not just a fig leaf.

Edward David, France.

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