Dearing goes abroad

April 10, 1998

The committee of inquiry had no time to do more than note the international dimension of higher education. But Britain must not be left behind the game, says Lord Dearing.

THE vice-chancellors of 17 universities from eight countries will meet in Scotland later this month as members of the newly formed Universitas 21.

These like-minded institutions see the international dimension of higher education as being of such great and growing significance that they have formed an association so they can work together. Their agenda is still developing, but it includes staff and student exchanges, teaching and research scholarships and the benchmarking of standards.

It might be said that international gatherings are a mark of the times and Universitas 21 is nothing spectacularly new. Within Europe, institutions have a couple of decades of collaboration behind them and, whatever else might be said about the United Kingdom's European credentials, our higher education institutions have been as proactive and as entrepreneurial as those of any other state in pursuing joint research programmes, student and staff exchanges, and joint awards. Much of this is the tangible result of European funding, which has pricked the sides of our intent. Universitas 21 springs from an identified need and opportunity to think and act globally, and in that lies its significance.

While education has never known any national frontiers, in Britain during the last decade its international dimension has increasingly been seen in terms of attracting students from abroad. We are not alone in this. In the United States and Australia as well as in the UK it has become big business. It is now recognised as one of Australia's major sources of overseas earnings and its development has been actively fostered by the government. Malaysia, Singapore, Canada and New Zealand are emerging competitors.

Such activity is not limited to the English-speaking world. Japan is seeking to double its number of overseas students. In Germany, there is concern to increase the flow of overseas students, not as a source of income for already overcrowded campuses, but out of concern for the long-term influence of such students in their homelands towards Germany. In France, overseas students have long been valued, with typically from 125,000 to 135,000 in the country at any time, but, as in Germany, the opportunity for further expansion is largely curtailed by pressure on space.

The educational value to home students is a well-recognised purpose. There is also the long-term national interest of gaining influential friends overseas. But with the pervasive problem of funding, it is understandable that institutions should have had the financial dimension as a primary focus. The economic upheaval in the Far East has therefore been a major source of concern. Institutions are seeking to maintain their income, but the long-term interest of higher education in Britain or anywhere else never lies in maintaining markets at the expense of standards. Damage has already been done to British higher education as a whole by opportunists concerned with business opportunity rather than with standards.

This competitive search for overseas students will continue to be part of the reality of higher education during the next decade, and there is a clear national, institutional and student interest in Britain maintaining its market share. But if that is to be achieved, institutions will need proactively to recognise that the opportunity will itself be changing, increasingly towards postgraduates and partnerships and joint ventures with institutions in the "exporting" country.

Over the next 20 years there will, however, be a new focus for our thinking deriving from four interacting, progressive developments:

continuing progress towards mass higher education, with resultant pressure on national budgets and so upon the unit of resource for teaching and learning

the fast-developing potential of communications and information technology to provide high-quality or even world-class learning material, but whose economic viability depends upon establishing a much broader usage than can be provided by any one institution

the growing reality of a global economy in which companies in the advanced world, out of competitive necessity, will increasingly need to invest continually in the intellectual capital of their staff, and recruit graduates with an understanding of cultures other than their own

the now-recognised necessity of lifelong learning as well as second chances for those who missed out first time round, and the associated need to provide both convenience and excellence to the working student.

The last two of these are the most obviously relevant to mature students who, in one major respect, represent very different costs from the traditional young entrant to higher education. Time is not a cost for young students coming to higher education from schools but the cost of the time of people in work may be very high. This will cause companies to look very closely at the cost-effectiveness of the provision available to them. In examining the cost-effectiveness of the options available, they will look for quality, relevance and scale of take-up. Companies with global operations will increasingly want programmes to meet their needs on a transnational basis, so that staff think and act from the same point of reference, with a common vocabulary and with mobility and flexibility in their work patterns.

So far the signs are that companies usually find it to their advantage to develop programmes in partnership with academic institutions, and institutions are, of course, anxious to develop such relationships. The global needs of companies will often lead them to seek interlinked partnerships in all the major countries in which they operate.

The alternative to such partnerships is for companies to meet their needs internally. But to realise the economies of scale themselves, having developed first-class material, they will see education and training as a tradeable service and enter into competition with higher education, possibly in partnership with one major institution which would give standing and credibility to their programmes in the market-places of the world.

For the global corporation seeking a high degree of commonality in learning programmes, it is reasonable to see the development of communications and information technology as a valued facilitator, often at the core of learning programmes. It could be the basis for major corporations in these technologies entering into education as a principal activity facilitated by the massive financial resources they can mobilise.

For traditional young students, the opportunities provided by new technology are already a reality, including the opportunity to explore knowledge on a global basis. The long-term requirements of the employment market increasingly give value to part of the student's educational experience being in an overseas institution. It was said repeatedly in the oral evidence given to the committee of inquiry into higher education that a good degree now secures an interview but no more. The potential employer is looking for plus factors, of which international knowledge and experience will increasingly be prized. If, however, such experience is to become a major part of the student experience, it will require institutions on a bilateral and multilateral basis to develop programmes collaboratively, and to move towards some mutual understanding about standards. The issue of standards needs to be tackled if the overseas experience is to be an integral part of the degree award.

We have passed through a decade in which education has been characterised by competition between institutions. Competition had its place during times of fast growth, stimulating thinking and securing reductions in unit costs that have facilitated the expansion of higher education. But in the evidence to the committee, one continuing theme, in relation to both teaching and research, was the need to find a new balance in which collaboration is encouraged in the interests of effectiveness. One of the tasks of the funding councils is now to foster that new balance, and this extends not least to the quality of the student experience by encouraging international collaboration. But the councils also need to be mindful that there is a developing world market in which Britain, through the English language, has an opportunity to be a major worldwide player in initial and lifelong learning. Reciprocally the English language opens the British market to formidable competitors from overseas, whether from within higher education or from companies that see education as one of the major growth markets of the next century.

The committee did not have time to do more than note this growing international dimension. It reported at a time when the almost universal concern was about the provision of resources rather than opportunities. The committee was therefore particularly concerned to look at ways in which overseas countries were seeking to address the issue of cost while maintaining standards, rather than to make a speculative assessment of international developments in higher education. But the committee was mindful of how swiftly the scene was developing. It was one of the factors it had in mind when recommending that there should be another major review five years hence. But institutions in the UK cannot wait five years to position themselves in global partnerships.

The game is moving quickly: and the prizes will go to those who are proactive rather than reactive. That is what Universitas 21 is about.

Lord Dearing chaired thecommittee of inquiry into higher education. He will be lecturing on the international dimension at the University of Westminster next month.

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