Don't bank on foreign 'cash cow', sector told

August 10, 2007

Universities must not view overseas students as "cash cows", MPs said this week, Rebecca Attwood writes.

If recruitment of international students is driven by short-term gains in fee income, universities could find themselves reliant on an income that is not stable in the medium or long term, according to a report on international higher education by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee.

With the cost of a degree in the UK the highest in the world for overseas students, apart from private US universities, the UK cannot compete on price but must compete on quality, the committee said. Better support for postgraduates was also needed, the report said. International students make up more than 50 per cent of all postgraduates in many subject areas, and "are maintaining the viability of some subjects for postgraduate study in this country".

The MPs called for universities to build partnerships with overseas institutions instead of having contact based on marketing.

They also urged the Government to set up a major foundation to increase collaboration between the UK and China along the lines of the UK India Education and Research Initiative.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee, said: "The time is ripe for a major growth in collaborative research between the UK and China, and this could lead to a massive increase in research funding for UK universities."

The MPs said that "dramatic steps" were needed to encourage more UK students to study abroad, and that key to this was improved foreign language skills.

Universities UK said recruitment of international students was not driven by fee income.

Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, described the report as "constructive" and welcomed the recommendation for UK students to spend a period abroad as part of their studies.

He pointed to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills-funded Higher Education Summer School programme, which is giving 200 UK students the chance to visit China this summer, and the Prime Minister's Initiative II, which focuses on improving the student experience and maintaining excellence in teaching and research.

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