The internationalisation of higher education is only "just beginning" and the UK sector must adapt if it is to retain its position at the head of the pack.
This is the view of Drummond Bone, who was last week asked by the Government to conduct an official review of the challenges posed by internationalisation, as part of a series of seven wide-ranging inquiries set up to help ensure that the UK sector remains "world class" in ten to 15 years' time.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Bone, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: "The internationalisation agenda for higher education is just at the beginning.
"It's very difficult to be a crystal-ball gazer - something dramatic could happen to change everything - but the way things are going at the moment I would expect internationalisation to have moved to a different level in 15 years' time."
Professor Bone will work with the Universities UK international policy group on the review, which is to be completed by September.
As a former president of UUK and the vice-chancellor of a university with extensive international links - Liverpool is one of two British institutions to have opened a university in China - Professor Bone is well placed to carry out the evaluation.
His assessment of the current position of UK higher education globally suggests that complacency would be a dangerous error. "I wouldn't like to be reported as saying we're pretty well set at the moment. I think this is a period of considerable transition in the UK's relationship to international education.
"We've done very well in the past, there's no two ways about that, but I think things are changing and we have to adapt," he said.
The review will look at the shift from international strategy as simply the recruitment of overseas students to UK institutions to the wider implications of internationalisation.
Professor Bone said: "The sustainability of overseas recruitment to the UK is an issue, as are e-education and campuses overseas, and there's a big question about research collaboration.
"There are trade issues that underlie all of this, on both the research and teaching sides in terms of access to markets.
"We'll be looking at visa and work-permit issues, where there is still a way to go, and at schemes such as the Prime Minister's Initiative (to increase the UK's share of international students) to assess what value they add.
"The scope is to look 15 years down the road and, if we don't think the Government is pointing in the right direction in terms of policy, then we'll feel free to say so."
The 15-year deadline set by the Government to equip the higher education system to compete globally is, Professor Bone said, a sensible time frame.
"In some ways, in terms of the practicalities, ten years is probably most comfortable," he said. "But on the other hand if you don't think beyond what is practical you can slip back from ten years to five all too easily, and that isn't long enough."
While competition from some countries is already well established, he said that other competitors - including Europe - were in the ascendant.
"People can get a bit complacent about challenges from new areas," he said. "We've got used to the competition from the US, Canada and Australia, but we're going to have to think pretty seriously about Europe.
"The Bologna agenda (to harmonise higher education qualifications across Europe) is modernising Europe and sharpening its act; I suspect Germany will pass the UK in terms of its overseas recruitment from China, for example."
The strength of higher education in China and India will also continue to grow, he said. "I don't subscribe to the view that China can be written off as an intellectual powerhouse.
"It's not going to be next year, but in ten or 15 years there's going to be enough excellence in the Chinese and Indian systems to be a serious challenge to the UK."
Professor Bone said it was vital for the future of higher education in Britain that universities were willing to compromise when prioritising their own interests and those of the sector as a whole.
"Until five years ago there wasn't much thought in institutions of the UK plc longer-term interest, but that is changing," he said.
"I think people realise that the one-way direction of international trade in education is seriously time limited. That means we have to look together at ways of maximising the perceived value in UK education and you can't do that as separate institutions fishing alone."
China's share of world academic citations rose from 2 per cent in 1996 to 6 per cent in 2005, and it claims to have edged the UK out of second spot in the ranking for total science publications.
Between 2001 and 2005, the UK's total publications output growth was lower than for China, India, Australia, Canada, the US or Germany.
The number of overseas students in the UK rose by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2005 - but they grew in Australia by 67 per cent, Ireland by 74 per cent and in New Zealand by 745 per cent.
The percentage of 15-year-olds in the UK who expect to go to university is 32 per cent, one of the lowest among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Source: Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
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