Call yourself cosmopolitan?

May 28, 2004

Embracing global opportunity is about more than cashing in on overseas students, says Frank Furedi.

One of the most exciting features of a university is its embrace of global influences. Ideas have always travelled well across national boundaries, and universities have often been the first institutions to welcome them.

Since the beginning of the university system, scholars and students have moved from one country to another, contributing to the overall intellectual development of humanity.

The pursuit of knowledge requires intellectual contact, which is why academics have often been so open to cosmopolitan influences. Academic freedom and intellectual experimentation are underpinned by values that aspire to a universalist outlook. That is why a "real" university possesses an internationalist orientation.

It is only now that we are beginning to discuss the international role of the British university openly. Sadly, this discussion is not the outcome of an intense debate about the global exchange of knowledge. Instead, it is driven by the imperative of recruiting more international students for cash-strapped British universities. Many believe that the financial wellbeing of universities depends on gaining a large slice of the booming global student market.

The British Council hopes that by 2020 the number of overseas students seeking to study at British universities will triple to 850,000. Many universities are hoping to establish a bridgehead in Asia, which is the fastest growing sector of the overseas student market.

For those concerned with the funding problems facing British universities, the global market represents an opportunity. For others, it poses a problem. For some time, the government has promoted the view that every young person has the right to go to university.

But this policy of using the university as an instrument of social engineering does not sit easily with the imperatives of global competition.

According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, as many as 240,000 extra university places may be required to meet student demand by 2010. It also predicts that by the end of the decade, there could be about 30,000 (up from the current 5,000) students in British universities from countries that have recently joined the European Union.

The prediction of an imminent influx of large numbers of East European students has led some to ask questions about whether there will be enough places for British students. There were reports that a flood of East European students would take places that would otherwise have gone to local students, and at the British taxpayer's expense. The Daily Mail headline "University invasion from the new EU states" summed up the paper's parochial attitude.

Yet the tension between the role of the university as a global institution and its role as a vehicle of British social policy remains unresolved. The recent conflict between Middlesex University and London's Haringey council illustrates this tension. Haringey council is reportedly furious at the decision by Middlesex to abandon its plans to build a multimillion-pound campus in Tottenham. Middlesex is dubious about attracting students - particularly high-fee-paying overseas ones - to Tottenham. It is likely to look for a more salubrious site.

Haringey portrays this decision as a blow to the local community - one that will make it difficult for youngsters to gain access to higher education.

For the local council, the university represents a community institution.

For Middlesex, it serves a wider purpose.

In the current climate, this tension is unlikely to be resolved. What we need are community colleges that serve local needs and universities that are truly globally oriented - not institutions that pretend to be both.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at Kent University.

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