Flock may change course

Studying abroad is of great value and the cost of UK degrees will shortly become prohibitive. Peter Brady identifies a dangerous mix

September 15, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

Universities throughout the UK like to congratulate themselves on the international nature of their student bodies. Statements on university websites showing off about the number of countries that students originate from are rife - as if having students from 160 countries somehow makes you more "international" than having them from 100.

Once we have established our international credentials, we go on to make bold claims about how we use this international student body to "internationalise" the experience for all students, including those who have not left their home country.

But, in reality, we find this difficult to do. In survey after survey, international students complain that they do not get the chance to interact with their UK peers. We can only assume that this is a two-way street. This failure is system wide, although undoubtedly there are pockets of excellence.

We all know that the best way for us to internationalise the undergraduate experience for UK students is for them to spend time, preferably studying, abroad. Yet this seems an impossible dream - even when we pay them to do it. Only about 5,000 non-language UK students take advantage of the Erasmus programme each year.

Nonetheless, UK universities can still pride themselves on the fact that they are producing international graduates - graduates who can speak and work in two or more languages and have experience of other cultures. The only problem is that they are not from the UK.

In 2009-10, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were about 130,000 European Union students studying for UK awards. These were not exchange students, who spend some time in the country and gain credit towards their home degrees, but students who will graduate with UK qualifications. Many already have, or go on to have, a second qualification from their home countries.

If you were an employer with global ambitions, who would you employ? An EU graduate who can speak two languages, has studied and lived overseas and gained awards in two countries, or a UK one with a single qualification who has done none of these things - even if he or she is lucky enough to graduate from a university that has provided an "internationalised" education?

And the dynamic is about to change. Of the 130,000 EU students in the UK, more than 80,000 are undergraduates. Given that the majority come from countries where higher education is free or inexpensive, it would seem likely that from 2012-13 the cost to EU students of "internationalising" their education in the UK (outside Scotland) will become prohibitive.

At the same time, the UK may become a serious target for European universities looking to recruit international students. Like the UK, most other EU universities have adopted an internationalisation strategy. For them, the main barrier to the recruitment of international students has not been cost, but language. To resolve this, many have created programmes taught in English - for example, the Carlos III University of Madrid offers 21 graduate and 16 undergraduate degrees taught solely in our native tongue.

It certainly would not do (non-Scottish) UK students any harm to look into the possibility of emulating their EU cousins and moving abroad to study. Perhaps the flow of students will even reverse, with EU students unable to afford to come to the UK and UK students studying in the EU taught in English on Bologna-compliant and inexpensive (or even free) courses.

Even when European universities teach in English, living for three or more years in continental countries helps UK students to develop a decent level of language skills (and there's always the Republic of Ireland). And the possibility of free, good-quality education abroad might even tempt some students to learn a different tongue.

What would such a switch mean? Our universities would become less international, but with more UK graduates who have studied abroad, our population would become more so, and that can only be a good thing.

The introduction of such a high level of fees has opened up the world market. English and Welsh students can easily use the internet to compare what they can get overseas with the value for money at home. As with all markets, some will benefit and others will lose. But one thing is certain - UK universities will have to be less complacent. The loss of 80,000 EU undergraduate students would be a blow, especially to those universities that have previously actively recruited them to help maintain their student numbers. What happens if UK students walk, too?

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