Our country needs EU

March 24, 2006

Universities welcome the growing influx of students from the European accession countries. They swell the coffers and enrich campus culture, reports Harriet Swain

As part of its student recruitment strategy, a team from Essex University recently visited a local delicatessen. The idea was to entice prospective students with delicacies such as smoked sausage, dumplings and nalesniki . Such a sales pitch would work only for a certain kind of student, of course, but that was the point. The team was on a fact-finding mission before attending a recruitment fair in Poland.

The promise of easily available pierogi seems almost unnecessary these days. The number of Polish students in the UK more than doubled - from 965 in 2003-04 to 2,185 in 2004-05 - after Poland gained full membership of the European Union in May 2004. This gave its nationals the right to study anywhere in the EU on the same fee terms as home students, making undergraduate study in the UK considerably cheaper than it used to be.

Nine other countries joined the EU at the same time - the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.

According to data released last week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students from these countries studying in the UK jumped by 53.3 per cent, from 7,300 in 2003-04 to 11,190 in 2004-05. There was also a rise in the number of students coming to the UK from Bulgaria, which is due to join the EU next year. But the numbers of students from Romania, which is due to join the EU at the same time, and from Turkey, set to join at a date still to be fixed, fell slightly.

European and international officers at UK universities say the main reasons that students from accession countries are flocking to the UK are lower fees and the opportunity to speak English, which most will have learnt to a high level at school. They also note that such students are applying to study a broader range of degrees than in the past, although the emphasis still tends to be vocational, with business studies, law, psychology and economics remaining the top choices.

Mike Nicholson, head of undergraduate admissions at Essex, says the chance to do more diverse courses and the opportunity to undertake interdisciplinary work is attractive to many from countries where higher education is more traditional.

But the enthusiasm for studying in Britain is not the same in all the accession countries. Thousands have been arriving from Poland and Cyprus - which accounted for 5,675 students in the UK last year, the largest number from new member states - and Lithuania and Slovakia registered big increases. But numbers from Slovenia, Malta and Latvia rose more modestly.

The reluctance of students to come to England is often explained by difficulty understanding the fee regime or anxiety about proficiency in the language, Nicholson says. The most enthusiastic students are usually from places that have existing links with the UK.

The UK has a significant number of long-established Polish communities in UK cities - hence the Polish delicatessen in Essex - and historically good relations with Poland that date back long before the Second World War.

Similarly, Cyprus and Britain have a long history together, from the presence of British military personnel and holidaymakers in Cyprus to a sizeable Cypriot community in the UK.

Nicholson says that Cypriot parents play an important part in their children's decisions about where to study and will tend to favour places where an aunt or uncle can keep an eye on their offspring. But other contacts are also important. Many of the Polish students coming to study in Essex have been prompted to apply by friends and friends of friends who have studied there.

Essex has seen a surprising leap in the number of applicants this year from Lithuania, where it has done no promotional work. Nicholson believes that it could be because of contacts with their Polish neighbours.

Academic links are also crucial. Many collaborations between accession countries and universities start at faculty level through research projects or contacts between individual academics. In the years leading up to membership of the EU, accession countries are encouraged to join European research or educational development projects under their own funding to help them prepare for life as a full member.

Gabriele Mikoleit, an executive officer of Heuro, the Association of UK Higher Education European Officers, says such links work best as part of an organic process that entails full commitment from the academic department and an academic agenda that clearly looks to exploit the collaboration.

Indeed, the education systems in many accession countries complement Britain's -mathematics, for example, is a strength in many Eastern European countries, and British universities that involve a Polish or Czech academic may give an invaluable boost to a research project in need of more mathematical thinking.

Martyna Sliwa, a Polish lecturer in management at Essex, first came to study in the UK seven years ago as a student. She agrees that an influx of Eastern European students can enrich UK universities. Her colleagues note that Polish students "tend to have a wider understanding of geographical and political contexts" than UK students as well as a different work ethic, she says.

Financially, however, it appears to make little sense - at least in the short term - to put much effort into recruiting from Europe. It would probably be cheaper to focus on recruiting in the UK or more lucrative overseas markets than to attend a fair or set up an office abroad to attract students who will pay no more than home students.

"The incentive has to be a different one," Mikoleit says. "It has to be part of a broad strategy to internationalise the curriculum and the student experience. You don't want to create either a ghetto of students all from outside the EU or UK courses where they don't have any international students at all."

She says many universities strive to spread their recruitment effort widely, even within Europe, to increase the range of students. "We have to educate young people for a global economy," she says.

Their desire to do so, however, is hampered by travel-shy UK students. The EU's Socrates/Erasmus exchange programme, through which many early links between institutions across Europe are made, struggles in the UK because so few UK students want to study abroad. The programme is based on a host institution bearing the cost of educating the exchange student on a reciprocal basis. This means that UK institutions are limited in how many exchange students they can afford to take by the number of their own students who want to join the programme.

John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council, says the UK has far fewer exchanges with accession countries than Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that its involvement with future accession countries - those just beginning to build academic links in the EU - is particularly low. Just one student ventured from a UK institution to Turkey this year, and only one Turkish student came the other way. "It is very sad because Turkey is so important," Reilly says. He says many Turkish students go to other countries in the EU instead. "That's disappointing and quite worrying from the point of view of the future of the UK. If a large number of students go for an important part of their formation to Germany, Italy and Spain rather than the UK, there are long-term political and economic implications."

British universities' efforts to improve links with European academics and students may be motivated by academic and cultural considerations, but they can also provide more tangible returns. Research by the British Council has found that every non-British EU student in the UK represents a net benefit to the UK of £6,000 a year in living expenses.

There are benefits for institutions as well as for the country. Many of those highly motivated accession country students who come to the UK will take courses unpopular with the most able home students, such as languages.

They may mean the difference between a course being considered successful and being forced to close. A large proportion of these students will go on to postgraduate study in the UK, for which they will pay fees and thus contribute to the institution's research base.

European officers are conscious of their practical as well as cultural mission in recruiting students. They tend to test the water, then target countries where they are likely to meet a good response. For example, Nicholson says the feeling is that it is early days for the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania.

Annette Strauss, European officer at Surrey University and chair of Heuro, says she has noticed institutions' interest in European recruitment rise as other traditional overseas recruiting markets become more volatile and as young people in accession countries look more favourably on the UK because they do not have to pay full fees. "There were some institutions that were quite exposed as a result of concentrating their marketing in particular countries overseas," she says. "Most institutions would want to manage that risk."

Dominic Upton, chief executive of Ukcosa: the Council for International Education, adds that as growth in the number of international students from China slows and as institutions run out of opportunities in the next big growth area, India, the new target markets will be more "difficult" ones, such as Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are subject to visa and administrative problems.

The temptation to boost numbers with students from the much simpler accession and future accession countries is therefore great - even if it does mean recruiters knowing their sausages from their sauerkraut.

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