Reckless exploitation of the overseas market will only end in tears

Andy Masheter argues that Britain's academy must not sacrifice its hard-won global reputation on the altar of expediency

June 24, 2010

Thirty minutes past midnight, somewhere in upstate New York. The cab drove past a Crowne Plaza, turned into a shabbier part of town and pulled up at the unlit entrance of what was to be my hostelry for the night. There was a massage parlour next door and a "No Soliciting" sign.

"I think the entrance is round the back," offered the cabbie.

There was indeed a larger, illuminated entrance with marble steps and a ramp. Things were looking up. Then I saw a brass sign on the wall: "Residence for Senior Living". Next to that, in smaller letters that clearly did not cater for the visually impaired: "Alzheimer Care: Residential Treatment Programs". Was this, I wondered, the vice-chancellor's idea of travel in the age of austerity?

The cabbie looked dubiously at the building as he unloaded our bags: "Most folks stay at the Crowne Plaza," he advised. Quite.

Not the best start to a trip with a packed schedule focusing on partnerships, student exchanges and recruitment. The main part of my trip was attending the prime US (and therefore world-leading) conference for those involved in international education: Nafsa, formerly the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, but now generally known as the Association of International Educators. This, for many, is also the main conference for overseas recruitment.

I first attended in the 1980s, shortly after being appointed chief executive of the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, or UKCOSA (renamed UKCISA in 2007). It was an "interesting" time. Universities had suffered budget cuts of about 15 per cent, which, coupled with the introduction of full-cost fees for foreign students, had led to a sudden and massive interest in recruiting internationally.

Half of the British Council's UK regional offices were closed, together with its Overseas Students Centre in Portland Place. And, in part prompted by the "Buy British Last" policy of Mahathir Mohamad, the newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister, which had led to the collapse of Malaysian student numbers, a new higher education division was formed. This led to the creation in 1984 of the Educational Counselling Service: its job was to attract foreign students to the UK.

The first international exhibitions organised by the British Council took place in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong in 1986, attracting thousands of students. I attended to provide independent advice to the interested parties.

At the same time, government grants that indirectly funded UKCOSA were reduced or withdrawn. In 1987, I therefore took the reins of an organisation that had to reinvent itself with a new business model and respond to the emergence of international-student recruiters, some of whom had gained an unenviable reputation for aggressive salesmanship. This led to widespread concerns about exploitation and to UKCOSA's code of practice for responsible recruitment.

I remember all too well debates about the acceptability of admissions offers being made to students in hotel bedrooms and the dangers of over-reliance on this new source of income.

All UKCOSA's conferences from 1985 onwards dealt with the reality that foreign students were now in essence recruitment targets: but we had to treat them well, for they were future ambassadors for UK universities.

Nafsa had been the inspiration for UKCOSA in 1967, after Shirley Williams had introduced differential fees, so going there for the first time in 1987 felt like a pilgrimage. And it was huge. Back then, British institutions were a modest presence.

Returning to Nafsa 20 years later was a shock. It was immense - 10,000 registrations, with more UK universities than I could believe and a vast international presence. Huge delegations from Australia, China, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Spain vied for space in a hangar-sized exhibition hall.

I returned this year. Yet again, British universities sent emissaries to recruit international students - and this time I was one. Yet again, there is a danger that the fees they bring will be seen unrealistically as the saviour of a system under threat, with universities tempted to set unrealistic targets.Yet again, there is the danger that if we forget the lessons of the past, we could kill this golden goose by recruiting with only money in mind.

But countering those dangers, there was a difference in approach from the UK this time, a sense that overseas recruitment has to be about partnerships, that trust and a strong bond between the key officers is paramount.

There has been a negative reaction in Southeast Asia to what is often seen as Australia's overly aggressive recruitment strategy, not helped by the reputational damage caused by racist attacks on Indian students in the country. This is not the way to go. As we seek to deal with today's challenges, it is sometimes easy to forget what history has taught us - that reputation is hard won but easily lost.

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