Danger: market forces at work

July 26, 1996

Recently I was privileged to attend a degree-awarding ceremony, organised by the University of Central England for international students graduating in 1996. The occasion was special, partly because it was the first time the university had organised a separate ceremony for this group.

Normally, international students receive their awards in the main round of congregations which take place in the year following graduation. Thus, many miss out on the very public celebration of individual success which characterises these occasions. Today, international students are big business. In 1992 Unesco estimated the total world market for these students was about 1.2 million. In 1990, five nations (the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada) took 63 per cent of those studying abroad, with the US being the largest provider (33 per cent).

Competition within this group for students from particular regions, (mainly the Pacific rim) has been sharply increased, partly as a result of aggressive new entrants, such as the Australians. Indeed, evidence suggests that Australia's share of the market has increased primarily at the expense of the UK.

The interest of UK institutions in this market is clear: financial advantages are self-evident. Moreover, this is one area where growth is encouraged since the public expenditure consequences are zero and international students contribute positively to the balance of trade.

International recruitment is probably the area of UK higher education policy where market forces are most visible. Competition is cut-throat. Some enterprising institutions have franchised parts of their provision overseas, establishing campuses and/or joint enterprises with overseas partners. The Higher Education Quality Council is sufficiently concerned by some rumours of sharp practice that it has recently looked into some of these alliances. In some cases, this provision seems to be driven as much by commercial as by educational factors. While all UK institutions share the common purpose of guaranteeing the high quality and standards of the qualifications they offer, in practice some do not appear to have procedures in place which enable them properly to verify the comparability of the programmes being offered. The message from HEQC audits is very clear: it is easy to be over-optimistic about the ability to exercise effective quality control.

In the case of international students studying in the UK, a different set of issues arises. Here, the main challenge relates to the ability of UK institutions to provide such students with the proper level of support. One consequence of the squeeze on institutional resources is a reduction in the range of services offered to all students and a potential deterioration in the quality of the educational experience for the individual, especially in those institutions that are overcrowded. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals's Code of Conduct in respect of international students has proved a useful benchmarking tool, but will not necessarily lead to action.

Education has always been an international enterprise. The globalisation of economic activity arguably puts even more pressure on institutions of HE to provide for all students an educational experience which rejects the narrowly parochial, and qualifications that are internationally celebrated. Students opting for these qualifications provide an invaluable financial lifeline to institutions struggling to manage budget cuts. In return, this important and vulnerable group of students deserves an educational experience which is as good as, if not better than, that provided by our rivals.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England.

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