Leaer: Find a balance in foreign equation

April 23, 2004

This week's spate of reports on international issues in higher education is not only timely, but also provides a nicely balanced starting point for a debate that is likely to become increasingly strident. It never hurts to remind the public how valuable the overseas education market has become, but the Higher Education Policy Institute is right to raise wider questions of equity between nationalities, income groups and even subjects.

The stridency will centre on the suspicion that UK students are going to lose out in universities' financially motivated drive to increase overseas recruitment. Some of the biggest headlines emerging from the British Council's two reports were not about the £10 billion benefit to the economy, but the potential denial of opportunities to home undergraduates. A further influx from abroad may enrich universities financially and educationally, but there will come a point where it is politically controversial. Until now, overseas students have represented a marginal addition to the home intake in popular subjects while propping up courses in other areas, particularly at postgraduate level. But when universities such as Oxford and University College London consider cutting already oversubscribed places for British students to accommodate more foreign applicants, the equation changes.

For the British Council and its partner organisation, Universities UK, the solution is to invest in more places and better provision. The huge potential growth in international student mobility promises correspondingly lucrative opportunities for UK higher education, but only where universities are perceived to offer top-quality courses. Among the questions raised at the seminar to launch the Hepi report was whether universities could possibly keep pace with international demand and maintain a reputation for excellence.

If that means accommodating the predicted 850,000 increase in the number of overseas students on traditional courses by 2020, the answer is obviously not. To do so would change the character of institutions in a way that would not be welcomed by applicants at home or abroad. The coming debate should be about where global responsibilities and domestic imperatives meet. Unesco has estimated that a new university needs to open every week if global demand is to be satisfied. Since there is no prospect of that, other means will have to be found to bring higher education to deprived communities. Overseas mobility will continue to be for the elite.

Politicians and those who run universities should search their consciences to see what they are prepared to do to spread the benefits more equitably, but widening participation has proved to be a challenging task on a domestic level without expecting to do more than scratch the surface internationally.

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