Infusion of new blood

March 11, 2005

International students are worth far more than just their tuition fees, argues Tom Wainwright

Even the brightest foreign students in the UK must be confused by our higher education admissions policy.

In January, Oxford University was ticked off for its plans to offer more places to applicants from outside the European Union whose higher fees make them more appealing than their subsidised British and EU peers.

But when last month it emerged that non-EU applications to UK universities had fallen, commentators sounded the alarm about a new "financial crisis" for higher education.

It does not take a Rhodes scholar to spot the inconsistency: recruiting more foreign undergraduates is deplorable one month but essential the next.

What is a visitor to make of it?

At Oxford, where last year I studied alongside people from around the world, foreign students were highly valued.

But what made them stand out was not just the size of their college bills; overseas visitors were often some of the hardest working and highest achieving.

It seems short-sighted to see their importance in purely financial terms.

It is not surprising international students tend to be among the most dynamic when you consider the hoops they have to jump through to make it here.

Applying through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was complicated enough even at my Leeds comprehensive. Just imagine what it takes to send your forms from Lima or Lhasa.

Not every overseas student has dodged bullets to come here - some probably flew business class. But you do not meet undergraduates from other continents who have just drifted into higher education in the way that some British students have.

Their enthusiasm and determination is infectious, and my university life was all the richer for it.

Furthermore, the exotic young scholars I knew at Oxford were usually more than a match for the rest of us academically.

It has been suggested that less wealthy universities have been tempted to lower their entry criteria for rich-but-dim foreigners, but the figures suggest the opposite. For the past nine years, overseas students have been awarded first-class degrees in greater proportion than their British counterparts, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Far from being of an inferior standard, international undergraduates have consistently proven to be among the brightest.

Fears that Oxford aims to scour the world for less deserving candidates and admit an army of rich idiot Americans to snatch away the education of brighter British youngsters are unfounded.

In fact, the university plans to raise non-EU numbers to 15 per cent of its undergraduate body, a very modest figure for an institution claiming to be international.

Unless Britain is home to more than 85 per cent of the world's talent - and it is not - swapping domestic students for foreign ones will raise, not lower, standards.

Some British candidates will be rejected in favour of foreign competitors.

But they will have been beaten fair and square by people who have simply outperformed them, often in a second language.

Easy for me to say with my Oxford degree already in the bag. But if Wainwright junior lost out to a Liu or a Lofgren in 30 years' time, I expect my disappointment would be tempered by the fact that there would still be Princeton, Stanford and the Sorbonne.

The international studying game need not be one-sided - we should learn to play it too.

When Laura Spence didn't get into Oxford, she famously marched off to Harvard University on a full scholarship. If more British students were as imaginative, we might see our overseas visitors as part of a two-way exchange, not an invasion.

Tom Wainwright graduated from St John's College, Oxford, after reading philosophy, politics and economics.

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