Is vision blurred by global view?

August 19, 2005

Should UK universities concentrate on domestic students or should they switch their focus to wooing top international talent? asks Maria Misra

In a few weeks I will pay a flying visit to Delhi, partly for research, but also to interview Oxford applicants from India. I have been doing this for a few years and have interviewed prospective undergraduates in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Guangdong, China. This is a scheme Oxford runs to boost numbers of applications from non-European Union countries.

India and China in particular have become highly receptive to such approaches because of their growing prosperity. Many applicants, though not all, are from privileged backgrounds. The competitive secondary education system, nationally funded scholarships and, increasingly, the availability of bank loans mean poorer students can also now apply.

This is an aspect of my job that brings untold enjoyment. The students are almost without exception very bright, very motivated and, perhaps because of the rapidly changing societies from which they come, highly engaged in subjects such as history and politics. The only frustration is that so many of those one would like to admit end up going to the US, either because they get scholarships or because they regard US institutions as more prestigious.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the growing numbers of foreign students at British universities. A Radio 4 Analysis programme, presented by Frances Cairncross, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, explored the pros and cons surrounding the issue. Some argued that these students lowered standards, that the only reason for taking them was that they paid higher fees than home and European students and that cash-strapped institutions were piling them high, if not selling degrees cheap, thus tarnishing the UK higher education brand. Others suggested that foreign students were "crowding out" home applicants, taking places from deserving nationals purely because of their wallet power.

My experience of teaching foreign students would not suggest any problem with quality; indeed, they often make up a large chunk of those who achieve first-class degrees. They add to the cultural mix of the student body, bringing perspectives and insights that home students would otherwise miss. In subjects such as engineering and mathematics, they are now the backbone of research in this country. If they return to their own countries, they will add to what is called the "human capital" base, generating a "multiplier" effect for the society.

Crowding out does not seem to be a problem - yet. Universities are bound by home student quotas and foreign recruits are strictly "out of quota". But could it happen if universities continue to be starved of home funds? People point to the example of the London School of Economics, whose student body is 60 per cent foreign. But I wonder if it will ever become a major crisis. Emerging powers such as India and China will want, as part of their pursuit of international prestige, to develop their own globally competitive universities; what we are seeing may be more akin to the 19th-century Meiji Japan "borrowing from the West", when it became briefly fashionable for its students to attend Western universities to copy them. But the issue raises a more central question - what are our universities for? Are they national institutions intended to raise the skills base of UK Inc or to promote social mobility? Or are they global institutions engaged in a world war for talent? These are unavoidable dilemmas in a shrinking world, but ones that many in academe and government are still ducking.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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