A unique product that offers value for money

September 3, 2004

With growing global competition for students, the UK can't afford to rest on its laurels, says Tessa Blackstone

At the start of a new term, British universities will welcome more international students than ever before. That is an enormous achievement by the sector. The Government, too, through the Prime Minister's Initiative, has boosted UK efforts to recruit from overseas. The launch targets have already been achieved.

But, while congratulations are well deserved, our universities must not be complacent about their position in the global higher education market. In Vision 2020: Forecasting International Student Mobility, a UK Perspective , the British Council predicted major growth in the number of students around the globe.

But we cannot assume that potential recruits will look to the UK. Major changes are afoot. In the English-speaking world, the dominance of the UK and the US has been challenged by Australia and New Zealand, which have invested heavily to attract overseas students, particularly from the Far East and South-East Asia. Other European countries are targeting students - by delivering courses in English. English-language teaching is on offer in universities in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. The EduFrance website advertises some 150 programmes in English. The European Union is also giving a promotional boost to European higher education through its new Erasmus Mundus scheme, aimed at students who might otherwise have come to the UK.

A further development is the growth of higher education in countries that have previously been major markets for the UK. For example, India is attracting international students to centres of technological innovation, such as Bangalore. Malaysia and Singapore aim to form a regional centre for higher education, to serve not just home students but those from China, the Philippines and other neighbours.

This movement of students between countries that the UK previously saw as its markets is having interesting and unexpected results - Korea is recruiting successfully from Uzbekistan, for example, and more Egyptian students study in Germany than in the UK.

Some of our competitors overseas are struggling with the impact of visa restrictions on international student movement, constraints imposed for all too well-recognised reasons. This may be an issue for the UK, too: there are already indications that recruitment from China is being affected. The Prime Minister's Initiative helped speed up the applications process for many international students. Now, the challenge is for universities to work with the Government to ensure that genuine applicants are not inadvertently deterred, or turned down, as we respond to the important need to protect national security. As international patterns of study change, so must our responses. As local economies grow, demand is set to grow in Eastern Europe, in East, South-East and South Asia - even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Working in partnership with the British Council, we must continue to boost our marketing. Partnership is important, as few institutions can afford to sustain significant operations overseas. By forming consortia, we could improve support for students applying in their own countries, removing obstacles in the applications process. Once students have graduated, and returned home, we need to continue to enhance their experience of British education, by developing the practice of holding degree ceremonies overseas and investing in alumni relations.

Post-1992 universities, such as the University of Greenwich, have already made a major contribution to the UK's growing recruitment of overseas students. They offer a distinctive subject range with a focus on professional and vocational qualifications, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, offering a competitive edge to many potential students seeking fast entry to jobs that need filling in their own countries. The former polytechnic sector has pioneered sophisticated, strategic marketing approaches and they have been well placed to promote themselves to potential overseas recruits.

Above all, UK higher education has a unique product that offers value for money via an unrivalled mix of quality teaching, high completion rates and short, intensive courses, in a country that offers students a diverse cultural activities, the English language, relative tolerance and a rich choice of towns and cities in which to study.

UK universities have a high reputation worldwide, one that we must jealously guard by providing education of the topmost possible standard. If we are successful, our reputation will be enhanced and more students will want to study here.

Baroness Blackstone is vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich.

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