Kicking sand at Uncle Sam

April 5, 1996

The British Council is bidding to help UK universities challenge their American rivals' success inenrolling students from the Gulf. David Jobbins reports from Dubai

Five years after the coalition forces drove Saddam Hussein's occupying troops out of Kuwait, the United Kingdom is shaping up for renewed - but peaceable - conflict in the Gulf.

This time the rivalry is over the potentially lucrative market for higher education, and the opposition is the United States, the UK's partner in the coalition.

For the past decade the US has dominated the market as the main destination for thousands of students from the region in search of higher education.

Now the British Council, as the main agency for promoting British educational services overseas, is stepping up its efforts to help United Kingdom universities and colleges market themselves in a culture where selling is an inescapable way of life.

"Taking the Gulf as a whole, the market is potentially a very large one, and the US is winning hands down," says Andy McKay, the British Council's director in Dubai, who is deputy director for the Emirates. "The battle is not lost but we need to be more coherent and aggressive in fighting it."

This month more than 85 UK universities, colleges and other educational agencies, from examinations boards to providers of other services, will be represented at the eighth Dubai education and training fair. They represent by far the largest national group, and many have supported the fair since its inception.

Although the fair is a commercial operation, it is supported by the British Council, which sees it as an effective weapon in the struggle to challenge US supremacy.

Two distinct markets exist in the region. There is a small but highly lucrative one for nationals of the United Arab Emirates, many of whom qualify either for government or private-sector funding to study overseas. And there are the children of expatriates - either the representatives of the many multinational companies in the region or the thousands of workers from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines attracted to low-level jobs by the wealth of the region.

The exhibition is overwhelmingly British in orientation - but there are signs of increasing attention from Australia. But both are up against serious competition.

The US is significantly more popular among UAE nationals - of 2,000-plus tertiary students overseas only 9 per cent are in the UK compared with 80 per cent in the US.

Students see the US culture as being more attractive, open and friendly than the UK which is seen as an Anglo-Saxon/Christian society rather than the US image of a multicultural and multiethnic community where course access has historically been easier compared with what is seen as Britain's once-rigid insistence on A levels.

"This is still the perception," Mr McKay said. "Britain is seen as having a high failure rate in that more people who go do not get through. This is linked to one of the advantages - the quality of British higher education, which is internationally respected."

While US universities promise to see students through their four years, the UK is unable to guarantee they will get beyond the first year. Cost is also a factor.

Since overseas fees were increased to near-full cost, the US has been perceived as cheaper for undergraduates. Although a lot of institutions have traditionally been looking for undergraduates, the council believes considerable opportunities for postgraduate studies exist.

"It is a smaller market, but it is one where Britain is perceived to have the lead because British postgraduate education is seen as higher quality, and more serious about postgraduate education."

"Perceptions are what have to be addressed. This is something the British Council can facilitate but the lead has to come from the sector itself. We are keen to achieve a more coherent set of messages coming out of the UK. Institutions are now better at doing their own marketing and much better at getting on a plane and coming over here."

But the United States has a head-start, with a strong record going back decades, of sending top-level delegations to target markets, and the United King may have lost out through a lack of professionalism.

"The people the universities have been using to do their marketing are traditionally academics who are not necessarily given a background in marketing skills," Mr McKay said.

"In an environment like this, with a commercial orientation, people want to know about the academic side, but they also want to be 'sold' to. The traditional academic approach does not apply in this environment.

"We need to be more aggressive. My contacts say the British are good but they are not pushy enough. They are also perceived as being too inflexible - the Americans and Australians are ready to tailor products - but the British are moving but not fast enough."

The British Council has commissioned a study of perceived attitudes in the region towards the UK and its higher education system from a team who were in the Gulf in the weeks before the fair.

"Although each country is very different, we regard the development of education expertise as one of our top priorities in this region. This means both people coming to the UK and UK institutions coming out here and offering their products in the marketplace - distance learning, open learning and taught courses.

Mr McKay warns of the danger of universities signing up with "god-awful" local agents who lack expertise and are unable to guarantee the integrity of examinations.

For several years the Dubai office has been the focal point for delivery of a Strathclyde University MBA. Three or four other British universities have begun to market similar courses and the council offers "even-handed" advice on all of them. "My concern is to get quality British products on to the market."

Other courses fielded by UK universities include MEds and professional qualifications for which Mr McKay identifies a "huge" market.

"While there is still a market at undergraduate level, one of the priorities is to get more open learning and taught courses into the marketplace. The problem has been the issue of recognition and validation.

Anything further or higher education-related has to be approved by the ministry of education which has reservations about part-time or open learning courses. They do not feel convinced that quality can be the same as on a full-time taught course. The ministry does not yet have in place a framework for validating part-time qualifications, but they are trying to put one in place which will sort the problem out.

"Britain is resting on its laurels. We have been seen as a traditional partner in the Gulf - the place to which the senior generation has gone. This is the partner they know. But the younger generation is taking a different approach and questions why it should go to Britain," said Mr McKay.

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