Universities in other European countries are increasingly offering courses conducted in English. This could have serious implications for recruitment of students to UK institutions, Anna Fazackerley finds.
Walking into a postgraduate chemistry teaching session at Ruhr-Universitat, a relatively low-profile institution tucked away in Bochum, in the far western corner of Germany, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the UK. "All our teaching is done in English," says Thomas Koch, scientific co-ordinator at the university's Graduate School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "It makes sense, really. In chemistry, English is the language we publish and communicate in."
But the agenda here is less about publication and more about student demand. At a time of intense global competition, Koch's English-speaking German school is pulling in students from across Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. In the past three years, the faculty has doubled its international student intake. Koch hopes numbers will continue to grow as students return home and do their own word-of-mouth promotion of his university.
To encourage this migration, the school is removing all the barriers it can. Particularly talented students can apply to do a PhD with only a bachelors degree - a two-year masters used to be the minimum requirement.
But perhaps more crucially, the school concentrates on taking the fear out of moving for their international students. "We have an office to help people settle in," says Koch, adding that this helps them negotiate German administration and factors such as finding a house. "That is as much of a vital change to our service as offering the course in English," he says.
This is not an isolated case. Before 2002, it was mandatory for German universities to teach doctoral studies in German, but Koch explains that the Government is now keen to push in the opposite direction. "It has funded 50 international postdoctoral programmes at German universities to make them more attractive to international researchers," he says.
Although there is much talk in the UK university sector about how to address international competition, the focus tends to be on the growth of higher education in countries such as China and India. But Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and president of Universities UK, agrees that institutions should also be keeping an eye on the growing market much closer to home.
As the first top-up fee-paying students arrive in British universities this semester, universities in other European countries are thinking of cashing in on the fact that their higher education is cheaper. If a cash-strapped student from Poland had the choice of coming to the UK and accumulating a fairly hefty debt or going elsewhere and studying a similar course in English at a much lower cost, what would they choose? Neil Kemp, an independent international higher education consultant who used to be in charge of promoting the Education UK brand for the British Council, says the demand for courses delivered in English is huge and that across Europe institutions are moving to meet it.
It is alarming enough, he explains, that in the Netherlands they have 1,000 masters courses being delivered in English. But they have trumped this recently by announcing that all their postgraduate courses will be conducted in English. Kemp lists Germany and France as being the two other serious competitors. This will undoubtedly cause some harrumphing among British academics.
Ian Haines, director of the graduate school at London Metropolitan University, has noticed what he calls a very significant number of postgraduate degrees being offered in English in other countries. "It shows how much things have changed when you think that not so long ago if you so much as uttered a word of English in France you'd be liable to be arrested," he says.
But Kemp counters that, in fact, the French are determined that they are not selling out and subjugating their national identity to scoop up more international students. "EduFrance, the group responsible for marketing a whole range of programmes delivered through the English medium, says that students may learn in English but they will live in French. They accept that they are part of a greater international union, but they want students to have a thoroughly French lifestyle," he says. "It is a very refreshing approach."
This stance may prove attractive to UK students who wish to experience a new culture while learning within their own comfort zone. As Education Secretary Alan Johnson told vice-chancellors at the UUK conference earlier this month: "If this challenge is not grasped, not only will our share of overseas students dwindle, but so will our share of domestic students, who will go abroad."
Johnson was referring to the more prominent threat from China and India (both of which offer some courses in English) but the point applies equally to Europe - perhaps more so given the relative ease with which a British student could hop over to France on the Eurostar.
Meanwhile, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have an eye on expanding in this market and are changing their laws to allow international students to be charged a fee. "France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK are dominant.
They are without doubt the big four," Kemp says. "But others are moving in, and they will be able to make an impact in certain niche areas."
Nonetheless, many UK academics would argue that this expansion does not really matter as long as our universities continue to do what they are doing well. James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University, says: "People in Africa don't believe there is such a thing as a top German university. In my work in China, India and Africa I only hear people talking about British and American universities. We have a strong brand and we have already won the competition against the Europeans."
But when marketing courses within Europe, does the game become more complicated?
Drummond Bone points warily to the Bologna Agreement, which is gradually removing the major differences between European universities and blurring our competitive advantage. Once students might have turned their nose up at studying in Germany, where some degrees were famous for dragging on for seven years, but now German students complete their study in three years just as we do here.
Paul Temple, senior lecturer in higher education management at the Institute of Education in London, agrees, arguing that more European countries will also follow Britain down the fees route. "We are pretty sure that our university systems will look more and more similar as time goes on," he says.
He warns that European students are an increasingly savvy bunch about whom university admissions officers should not be complacent. "I suspect there is still a sense of a British brand abroad, but now students look at research assessment exercise scores, quality assurance reports and league tables and draw their own conclusions. Choosing a university has become like buying a new car."
The growth of English courses abroad is not yet a revolution. Indeed, many academics are not even aware that this market has been quietly emerging.
But those who ignore the possibility of a threat from Europe might do well to remember Temple's car analogy - and all those students driving around town in their nippy little Renault Clios.