Is the UK starting to lose pulling power?

December 22, 2006

Foreign students are welcome on British campuses, but will the universities that rely on their fees be exposed as demand falls and the global market shifts? asks Harriet Swain

Every year, the top maths students at Warwick University receive prizes. Of the nine awarded this year in the department of mathematics, operational research, statistics and economics, eight went to students from overseas. This is partly a mark of the high quality of many foreign students. "These overseas kids we get have really good maths skills, and it encourages the British students to keep up with them," says Peter Dunn, a Warwick spokesman. But it is also a result of their quantity. Less than half of the students in the department, 62 out of 135, are from the UK.

The presence of thousands of students from abroad has become an integral part of university life in the UK, and has been enriching in more than one sense. Universities benefit financially from the higher fees they can charge, and students get the opportunity to gain experience of different cultures. But debate is growing within the sector about how best to respond to this globalised student body and how to manage its impact on UK higher education.

More than 203,000 international students study at UK universities. They pay more than £1.4 billion in fees and contribute about £5 billion a year to the UK economy. Earlier this year, Tony Blair called for 100,000 more overseas students over the next five years, and Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, predicted that international higher education could be worth as much as £20 billion to the UK by 2020.

Particularly striking is the growing importance of overseas postgraduates, who have increased in number by 120 per cent in the past ten years. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in 2004-05, 41 per cent of postgraduate research students and 29 per cent of those on postgraduate taught courses came from outside the UK. In seven subject areas - law, engineering and technology, business and administrative studies, architecture, building and planning, computer science, and social studies - less than half of research postgraduates were home students.

At Nottingham University, 25 per cent of students are from overseas. To learn what this means for the university, Nottingham is surveying its deans, says Enzo Raimo, head of international student recruitment at Nottingham. Deans have received a questionnaire asking, among other things, whether Nottingham should internationalise the curriculum and do more to support and integrate foreign students. "Universities realise they now have to work in a much larger marketplace," Raimo says. This means it is no longer enough simply to recruit a UK professor and lay on a masters course in that person's specialism. "Increasingly, universities are looking for what different parts of the world are looking for," he says.

And different parts of the world are often looking for different things.

Tim Gutsell, director of the international office at Essex University, says that demand in newly emerging markets tends to be in areas where there is a link between a course and a better job. Hence the demand from the Chinese market for business and IT programmes over the past ten years.

Interest in a wider range of subjects tends to develop as a country's market matures. In more affluent countries such as Hong Kong and Japan, there is greater interest in academic study for its own sake - design and English are very popular with Japanese students, for example, while those from the US go for combined studies and politics.

To complicate matters, overseas students are not interested in all aspects of a discipline to the same level. Hesa data show that while 63 per cent of postgraduate research students studying electronic and electrical engineering are from overseas, the figure is 46 per cent in aerospace engineering. Business schools attract 78 per cent of their accounting students from overseas, but only 36 per cent in human resource management.

The choices made by overseas students can be even more specific. John Oliver, senior consultant in the international office at Essex, says universities develop a reputation for particular subjects in particular countries - a trend that often snowballs as students return home and recommend their department to others. Ten of the 28 overseas students on Essex's masters in international trade law are from Thailand, a third of its overseas undergraduates in the electronic systems engineering department are from Botswana, and half of the 64 new overseas masters students in linguistics come from Taiwan and Saudi Arabia. Oliver says Essex does not generally establish courses aimed at nationalities, although it does keep its portfolio of courses under review, taking account of changes in demand from overseas students.

Stephen Perkins, professor of human resource management at London Metropolitan University, says that 80 per cent of students on its MA in international human resource management are from overseas. But the course was set up specifically to tap the international market, he admits.

"The university has gone to quite a lot of trouble to establish a presence in a variety of countries," he says. "A number of programmes have been developed with the international student body in mind."

Many other universities lay on courses tailored to particular markets.

Nottingham has a range of applied programmes in mathematics and business studies and some technical subjects specifically aimed at meeting the needs of students from India and China, for example.

But there are dangers in attracting too many students of a particular nationality to a course. "Most institutions are trying very hard to diversify," says Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at Ukcosa, the UK Council for International Education. "China has been the growth country, and everyone is very well aware that that may not continue." She adds that becoming too dependent on one country is dangerous.

Vin Hammersley, director of communications at Warwick Business School, says there are also academic incentives to diversify. "Sometimes if you overload a course with a certain nationality that skews the course." He adds that student feedback shows an appreciation for courses that are not dominated by a particular nationality or culture.

Some subjects and universities cannot afford to be choosy. Forty per cent of students from outside the European Union come from just seven countries.

And international students from places such as China and India have become so important that some courses might struggle to recruit without them. In electronic engineering, Hesa figures show that 1,600 students are home students, compared with 4,700 from overseas.

Janet Ilieva, market information development officer for the British Council, says: "What the figures show is that quite a lot of disciplines in the UK that are very strong in terms of research have become very dependent on international students. It is the international students that keep some departments vital. It shows that if there is a market failure it is going to affect the sector heavily."

As competition increases from other European countries that provide courses in English, and from countries such as China that are rapidly developing their own sector, such market failure is a real danger.

The spectacular growth in the number of overseas students over recent years almost came to a standstill this autumn, with only 300 more foreign undergraduates starting courses in the UK, largely due to a drop in the number of applications from China. Even among postgraduates, there are signs that the market is slowing. Hesa data show that the number of overseas postgraduates in Britain rose 6 per cent between 2003-04 and 2004-05, compared with 12 per cent the year before and 18 per cent the year before that.

The fact that the main growth area is among postgraduates rather than undergraduates is a problem, Ilieva says. While undergraduates study in the UK for three years, many postgraduates come for less than one. "What it means for universities is that they would have to recruit many more students and more frequently," she says.

So, universities are going to have to think even harder about how to present themselves and their courses.

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