In it for the money? UK needs to rescue overseas reputation

Sector must win back students put off by fees and visa rules, new UKCISA head tells John Morgan

July 14, 2011

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Going, going, gone: Tuition fee increases and more stringent visa rules could see overseas students choosing other destinations

Widening access on a global scale by creating more international student scholarships could counter the perception that UK universities are "in it for the money", according to the new chair of an international student group.

Paul Webley, director and principal of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, took over as chair of the UK Council for International Student Affairs on 1 July.

He highlighted the need to aid UK higher education's recovery from the problems caused by new visa regulations for overseas students and said he wanted to help "repair the damage to our reputation".

UK universities had to overcome the perception among some overseas students and their parents that they are too focused on the financial rewards of recruiting students, he argued.

"It's important that we don't give that impression: it's also clear that that impression has been given," Professor Webley said.

He described encountering such views on a recent visit to India. "Some of the questions we had there were: 'Why are UK fees so high? Are they (UK universities) just in it for the money?'

"No, we are not, but we are trying to ensure the best possible level of experience we can for students. It costs money to do that in an expensive country."

He said that Soas was "fundraising for scholarships to make sure that widening access is not just confined to the UK".

"I am as concerned about students in Bangladesh as I am about students in Tower Hamlets," he said. "I want the bright student in Bangladesh who wants to come to study at Soas to be able to afford it, even if they don't have the money."

On UKCISA's work, he said one focus is on "ensuring that international students have absolutely the best experience they can, that international student advisers are there to ensure these things happen.

"The other issue is reputational, because our reputation has been damaged - there is no doubt in my mind - by the way the student visa changes have been brought about."

He added that students could be put off by the messages surrounding the student visa reforms. "The country itself is not perceived as being as welcoming as it used to be. America suffered the same thing after 9/11 when it tightened its visa controls."

UKCISA was in "very close contact with the UK Border Agency" and would work with it on the "nitty gritty" of visa details, he said.

Professor Webley argued that it was important to convey the benefits that international students bring to UK higher education and to society more widely. "It isn't just for them (international students)," he added. "It is for our benefit that they come here, for the benefit of our students and our research."

Hidden costs: how policy changes can damage the economy

Reforms to tuition fees and student visas could cost the UK economy about £8 billion in lost export revenue by 2025, according to a study produced for the government.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report, Estimating the Value to the UK of Education Exports, shows the heavy impact that both policies will have on the number of people studying in the UK.

The report, by consultants London Economics, was released with little fanfare alongside the higher education White Paper last month.

On tuition fees, it predicts that higher charges will lead to a 6.4 per cent fall in the number of European Union students coming to England from the Continent by 2012.

Even accounting for the extra tuition fees that will be paid by those who come, the study forecasts that the drop in demand will lead - through forgone income and spending - to a total cash loss to the economy of £5.66 billion (at today's prices) by 2025.

On immigration policy, the report calculates the loss to the economy if the government succeeds in preventing a proportion of overseas students from being able to study in the UK. Assuming that the policy results in a 10 per cent fall in the total number of overseas students attending all forms of university and college, the study predicts that the cost in forgone fee income and other student spending will be £2.33 billion (at today's prices) by 2025.

Overall, the report estimates the value of UK education exports to be £14.1 billion in 2008-09, with tuition fees paid by students in higher education bringing in £2.4 billion and other spending by overseas students accounting for £4.3 billion.

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