Freedom via education is not a flight of fancy

December 17, 2004

The British Council can help attract foreign students to the UK and boost learning worldwide, says Neil Kinnock

Education has long been at the core of everything that the British Council seeks to achieve. In this century, enablement, emancipation and empowerment continue to be among our main sources of motivation and channels of activity.

Worldwide, there are more than 2 million students following higher education programmes outside their own country, and the number of students prepared to study abroad is growing by 6 per cent a year. Some 300,000 students - including 38,000 in research - are studying at UK universities and other institutions. They enrich our society, our economy and our intellectual and innovative output, not least because of their propensity to follow postgraduate courses.

Those students have been attracted here by the UK's educational reputation for quality, the global value of our qualifications and the extent to which the English language is used. And the strength of that magnetism is increased when our institutions are truly global - offering programmes that have multicultural appeal and impact, collaborating internationally, supporting multinational research, attracting the best students and staff and ensuring a welcoming environment. These attributes ensure that the UK is second only to the US in its total international education activity. In terms of relative size, the UK is the global leader.

Apart from the educational and cultural benefits, that prime position means the total value of education and training exports for the UK is about £11 billion a year. As I told the Going Global International Education Conference last week, this fact deserves to be more widely broadcast to counter the latent and manifest xenophobia in this country.

To protect the UK's pole position as a destination for international students, and to sustain net economic benefit from education services, the British Council believes that reinforcing action should be undertaken.

The success of the Prime Minister's Initiative for International Student Recruitment should be built on with a sustained and well-coordinated approach that draws together all interested parties - Government, public and private-sector education providers, representative bodies and organisations such as the UK Council for Student Affairs and, of course, the British Council. Shared directions and coherent approaches on issues such as student immigration, visas and rights of residence and work are necessary and would also be facilitated by improved collaboration.

International education is a fast-growing multibillion-dollar business. But it will not make its full contribution to global plenty and serenity unless it consciously seeks to contribute to overcoming the causes and effects of poverty and to fulfilling a primary purpose of education, which Nobel laureate Amartya Sen succinctly defines as the "enhancement of individual freedoms".

In our times, even the most insular cannot avoid the economic and geopolitical consequences of the chronic penury of others. We all therefore have a vested interest in broadening perceptions and increasing provisions for combating the disadvantage that inhibits or prevents liberty and imperils stability. And education is the most potent weapon in that contest.

I believe that the British Council is uniquely qualified to foster strategic action to ensure that international education is recognised as an explicit dimension of policy for governments and institutions and not an adjunct to domestic provision. We are in this position because we are probably the only organisation in the world that covers the full spectrum of education and training activity; because of our strong and practical commitment to educational and cultural partnership; and because our public diplomacy activities do not have any sectarian, partisan or aggressive purpose.

In a world and a time when communication is easier than ever, the sour reality is that in many places understanding is fragile or absent.

Such conditions emphasise the need for transparent, creative and enabling action - through education - to nurture mutual respect, trust and understanding. In sum, we want the UK to learn with the world as much as we want the world to learn with the UK. And we want that because we do not view international education as one-way traffic.

International education, particularly in the increasingly interdependent conditions of this century, enriches every society and economy by deepening awareness and understanding of other cultures. It is one of the means by which the world community can bind itself together with comprehension. No era has needed that more than ours.

Neil Kinnock became chair of the British Council on December 1.

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