Market with a wealth of talent - but should UK plunder it?

June 2, 2006

At a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on immigration control in May, Gwyn Prosser, MP, told fellow members that while Leeds University had received some 2,500 applications from Nigerians, and offered half of them places, only five turned up at the start of term in autumn 2005.

Many of Nigeria's 132 million inhabitants are desperate to escape the turbulent country with its dysfunctional university sector, but they face insurmountable problems, such as lack of finance and sceptical visa authorities. Dominic Scott, chief executive of the Council for International Education Ukcosa, says that Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city, has a visa refusal rate of 79 per cent among students.

Students don't need to demonstrate that they have money to apply for or accept a place at a UK university. In the developing world, says Scott, "many people accept an offer in the hope that they will be able to find the money but can't".

Such are the difficulties British universities could face if their drive for foreign students takes them to what Scott calls "more difficult markets, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria".

It is common knowledge, he adds, that East Asia has been "the bread-and-butter market for the better part of a decade". But for how long can the UK rely on its traditional stamping ground? Competition for students from the region is hotting up. Other Western universities and other countries in the region along with local higher education sectors are all vying for applicants.

But even if the UK were to turn to challenging new markets, there may be stiff competition. In Africa, South Africa is the main regional competitor.

Thanks to a strong higher education sector and relatively low tuition costs, it has seen an explosion in the number of foreign students it attracts - up from 12,600 in 1994 to an estimated 60,000 now, or 7 per cent of the student body. A quarter are postgraduates, and more than 80 per cent come from other parts of Africa.

Moreover, last November, the US Institute of International Education put South Africa in the top 20 destination countries for Americans who studied abroad for academic credit during 2003-04: the UK ranks first.

But the UK could capitalise on the fact that many students in troubled countries are desperate to get out and obtain internationally recognised qualifications, which increase their chances of migration.

Despite the enormous hurdles Nigeria faces, Scott points out that it is placed sixth among non-European Union countries that send students to the UK. It lies ahead of Pakistan, Japan, Taiwan and Canada, and falls not far behind Malaysia and Hong Kong. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 8,145 Nigerians studying in the UK in 2004-05 - up from 5,940 the previous year - 3,000 of whom were on undergraduate courses and more than 4,000 on masters or research courses.

While many UK recruitment officers are looking towards the ten countries that recently joined the EU to fill their foreign student quota, those students pay home fees and there are fewer of them - 11,190 in 2004-05 against 29,445 full fee-paying African students. African students made up nearly 10 per cent of the 318,000 international students in Britain in 2004-05. They came primarily from 21 countries with colonial ties to Britain, including Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe. A recent survey by the Southern African Migration Project (Samp) of 10,000 students in six countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe) found that over a third took "the possibility of emigration very seriously".

About 36 per cent said it was likely they would emigrate within six months of graduation and 52 per cent within two years of graduation. Three quarters believed their prospects would be brighter in developed countries than at home.

There are indeed signs of increased activity by British universities in some African countries, a cause for concern on a continent suffering a massive brain drain. According to the Global Commission on Migration, Africa has lost more people in the past 20 years than during 200 years of slavery - most of them much-needed professionals.

Akilagpa Sawyerr, secretary-general of the Ghana-based Association of African Universities, says that in Ghana there has been "an active and grim drive to recruit students, an explosion of efforts not only involving advertisements but also visits by the British Council. I imagine the same is happening elsewhere."

There is, he adds, a long brain-drain tradition of African students seeking to study abroad and then staying on. He says: "Students are free to go where they like, but the idea of students as customers to be hunted for is disconcerting."

Improving African higher education would encourage students to stay at home, and the revival of African universities is a cornerstone of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. But whatever the commission achieves, Sawyerr says, it will not counter Blair's push for an extra 100,000 foreign students.

In any case, Samp argues that graduates will stay at home only if there are jobs, opportunities for professional advancement and improved quality of life.

Some UK universities are trying to get around the brain-drain problem by establishing strong, mutually beneficial links with Africa. Last month, Wolverhampton University bucked the "look East" trend by forging links with Kabarak University in Kenya. Its partnership includes collaborative research, developing degree programmes, and staff and student exchanges.

Scott sees this as the way forwards. He says UK universities "will need eyes and ears on the ground, gathering market intelligence so that they know the difference between serious and spurious international student applicants".

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