If the students won't go out into the world, bring the world to them

The UK can give its home cohort an international outlook without their going abroad. Let's hope the US doesn't learn to, writes Peter Brady

May 15, 2008

In the past, the American idea of international education was putting the words "London, England" on films showing images of Big Ben, red buses and black cabs. Now things have changed. The US higher education system has woken up to the fact that American graduates must be prepared for the changing world we live in.

This could be a worry. UK universities rely increasingly on the fee income from overseas students, who can account for up to 20 per cent of all revenue at some institutions. In 2004, the British Council published Vision 2020. That report forecast that the global demand for international places was likely to rise from 2.1 million to 5.8 million. Many UK universities have based expansion plans and income forecasts on maintaining their share of this rapidly growing market.

On this basis, they have geared up their overseas marketing arms, opened offices abroad, set up agent networks, run programmes offshore and formed partnerships worldwide. To date, the Americans have taken a laissez-faire view of international marketing. But if that changes and they follow the example of the UK and Australia, all the efforts of our universities could be undone - after all, the US already recruits more students than anyone else without trying.

However, we need not worry. The American view of internationalisation is far closer to the European model than the British or Australian one. Like our European cousins, the Americans see study abroad as the major route to internationalisation. But in Europe these funded exchanges have proven to be far less successful in generating mobility than market-led schemes. More than 100,000 European Union students study in the UK as the result of universities actively recruiting, whereas only 15,000 do so through Erasmus schemes.

If we look at the mobility of UK students through Erasmus, the situation is even more dire. Only 7,000 take up Erasmus places, and more than 40 per cent of these are language students who have to spend time overseas as part of their programme. The fact that only 265 UK students who studied abroad through Erasmus were engineers shows the failure, for the UK, of this scheme, which costs the EU nearly EUR200 million (£157 million) a year.

Despite this, UK engineers are being taught in the most multicultural educational environment in the world. This is directly attributable to the downturn in applications from home students, which forced engineering schools to re-evaluate their approach to marketing and recruitment. Over the past few years, these schools have sought out new sources of students in the EU and overseas. This was done using all the skills previously associated with commercial ventures. Now more than 40 per cent of all electrical engineering students at UK universities are from outside the UK, and UK engineering schools have healthy student populations and bank balances. These students can genuinely be said to work in a multicultural environment. Increasingly institutions are adapting their programmes to make the most of this new talent in the classroom and ensure that home students benefit as much as overseas ones. When this works well, students can leave our universities equipped with a multicultural education and an understanding of other cultures even if they have not studied abroad.

It is generally accepted that to maintain our place in the world economy, we must produce graduates with an international outlook. But countries should recognise that they will not be able to get most of their students to study abroad. To internationalise the system, you must get more international students and faculty on campus. If the Americans realised this, they would be in the perfect position to capitalise. They could emulate our Prime Minister's Initiatives and create an American HE brand. Universities would have to recognise the importance of having international students on campus, and international departments would have to change from looking at cosy study abroad opportunities to selling their university.

But just imagine the results if the country that managed to sell McDonald's to the French and Barry Manilow to the world began to market its higher education a system that has 38 out of the top 50 universities in the world, according to league tables. Pretty quickly the rest of us would have to start readjusting our plans and downsizing our forecasts. But thankfully the idea of treating education this way is as shocking to American academics now as it was to us in the UK some years ago. Long may it remain so, and long may the country that is the home of the free-market economy remain unaware of the size of the potential market that lies outside its borders.

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