Saudi delivers undiplomatic verdict on UK universities

‘Lower standards’ at some institutions a result of rush to recruit overseas students, says embassy’s cultural attaché

March 26, 2015

Source: prebano66

Saudi Arabian Embassy in London

UK universities’ eagerness to recruit more overseas students has resulted in a “lowering of standards” and “incompetent graduates sometimes”, according to a startling critique delivered by a representative of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London.

An International Higher Education Forum hosted by Universities UK and the UK Higher Education International Unit on 19 March included a session titled “Seeing ourselves as others see us: global perceptions of UK higher education and the impact on your international strategy”.

But the hosts may not have expected one of the speakers, Faisal Abaalkhail, cultural attaché at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, to be quite so frank in his assessment.

He told the gathering in London that the “very, very positive perception of institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom has been changing; hopefully we will be working towards restoring whatever confidence is needed”, while noting, however, that the weaknesses related to only a “very small number of institutions – they are the exception”.

In the UK, higher education was “now branded as an education export”, Dr Abaalkhail said, and “wherever there is fast growth, there are a number of negative factors”.

There had been a “lowering of standards, poor student experience and satisfaction, and more emphasis on generating revenues”, he said, while again emphasising that “those are just the exceptions”.

Agencies sponsoring Saudi undergraduates “have noticed that there is this increasing number of students being admitted to degree programmes with insufficient amount of the English language”, he said.

Also, he added: “Academic standards in some cases are being overlooked to allow students to progress [on their courses], resulting in incompetent graduates sometimes.”

Dr Abaalkhail concluded: “Although the Saudi perception of UK higher education remains overall positive – very positive – the problems and difficulties…need to be addressed” to ensure a continued mutually beneficial partnership.

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Reader's comments (2)

As an academic with experience in the UK and Saudia Arabia university systems, I welcome Dr Abaalkhail's accurate signalling of an issue that is real and a growing challenge, particularly for ill-equipped academic staff at the 'coal face'. It is never an easy task to 'raise a red flag' but I believe, given the extent of investment in international 'business' from abroad that there is a duty of care for the issue to be raised and some attempt made to ameliorate these poor experiences for future students. UK university developments to accommodate international students, fall short of the large investments from overseas. English language ability was identified as a concern. This is also an issue for more mature postgraduate international students and sadly for native English speakers aswell. I dont believe there is any evidence in John Morgan's account of the Cultural Attache's presentation to label it as 'undiplomatic'- this seems to be used as a 'convenient coincidence' and 'sidelines' the main issues.
I used to teach undergraduate Old English at the University of Manchester in the late 90s. Manchester had the pick of the good students. My presumption was that my students had come up to University to read English Literature because it was a subject which interested them or in which they excelled. Many could name fewer than five books they had read. A number of students hadn't even read their A'level English texts. We had to run a remedial class for grammar and spelling because too many students were so poor in this area. Yet these were the students I presumed should be competent and interested in the subject! Nevertheless we must not mention the phrase 'falling standards' or we are told we might hurt the feelings of the poor little darlings! Tch!

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