How UK can sell more '1st class tickets for life'

February 22, 2002

It is now more than two years since prime minister Tony Blair launched his initiative to attract more international students to the United Kingdom from non-European Union countries. The package of measures he announced has a five-year focus. There was an emphasis on doors: "a more open door" on immigration rules, "a door of information" involving a new UK education brand for better marketing of UK education, and "a door of finance" making it easier for such students to work and study at the same time.

He also suggested an expansion of the Chevening Scholarship Scheme by up to 1,000 places a year, and set "tough targets" for recruitment by 2005, to reach 25 per cent of the global market share of higher education students (an extra 50,000 students coming to the UK) and to increase the number of international students in further education by 100 per cent (an extra 25,000 students). His enthusiasm came through most strongly in his conclusion: "In a world of lifelong learning, British education is a first-class ticket for life."

Where are we now in higher education after the world-shaking events of September 11? What needs to be done next with the targets and the UK brand?

The overall figures are encouraging. First-year students from non-EU countries in UK universities and colleges increased from 59,570 in 1999-2000 to 67,120 in 2000-01 while the number of all foreign students increased from 119,440 to 1,560. The data for 2001-02 available from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service look even better. Compared with figures for 2000-01, there has been an increase of 20 per cent in the number of non-EU students who have accepted places on higher education courses. New student numbers from China have more or less doubled in each of the past two years. There have also been increases in student numbers from elsewhere, most notably India, Russia, Mexico and the Gulf states. However, there have been decreases in student numbers from some non-EU countries such as Norway and Japan.

But can the overall increases in overseas student numbers be sustained year on year for another three years? China's part in this will be crucial. China's accession to the World Trade Organisation and the apparent determination of its young people to study here despite September 11 are just two of the factors that indicate that the number of Chinese applicants will go on increasing. However, no source of recruitment should be taken for granted. It will be easier to sustain the rate of increase from East Asia if student mobility can become even slightly more two-way, especially in terms of some exchanges and scholarships at an institutional level funded out of increased international recruitment. Our concept of receiving fee-paying students here and providing, in return, a good service to them can be perceived in East Asia as a self-seeking one-way arrangement. And while visa-application processing has become more sophisticated, the systems still need more refinement.

Much of the increased recruitment so far has been to a rather limited range of courses, and there must be scope for UK institutions to make their course portfolios more broadly attractive to international applicants. Baroness Blackstone, then minister for higher education, launched the UK Education brand in January 2000. The three-year campaign is designed to establish a clear and competitive identity for UK education by creating awareness of what the UK has to offer, reinforcing positive perceptions and countering misconceptions. This has involved a great deal of hard work by the British Council.

Academics do not fit easily in a brand campaign, but the ongoing drive on quality in higher education institutions has undoubtedly helped to achieve improved levels of consistency across the sector. The Gilligan Report (2000), A Study of International Marketing Practice , delivered a broadside that has helped change the marketing practice of some institutions, but has gone somewhat unheeded in others. The brand research published some important observations from postgraduate evaluations that then seemed to remain unnoticed. Various responses from competitor nations to the brand campaign have indicated their respect for it.

If UK education is what the prime minister and the brand publicity say it is, then joined-up thinking suggests that it should now be deployed to play a correspondingly greater role in international development than it already does.

Nigel Paterson is head of foreign languages at King Alfred's, Winchester.

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