Fewer overseas students are opting to study in Britain just when the government has set targets for increased numbers. Some fall in recruitment from Southeast Asia was to be expected because of the region's economic difficulties and because governments are building up their own higher education capacity. But that does not explain why Britain is losing market share as well as numbers.
It is hoped that the British Council campaign, backed by Downing Street, to aggressively market Education UK will reverse the slide and enable universities and colleges to achieve the higher targets. But will it work? The United States, with its huge economic dominance, is proving an ever stronger magnet for the ambitious young of the world. Australia is nearer and cheaper, and in terms of climate and work, offers more congenial prospects than Britain to students from Southeast Asia. Both, like Britain, offer the great advantage of the English language.
Against this competition, Britain, unlike the US and Australia, is basing its marketing on a monolithic brand; on the guarantee of across-the-board standards. In this, the quality regime features large. This has some advantages. During the 1980s and 1990s the financial desperation that drove British universities and colleges to scour the world for high fee-paying students led to some shoddy offerings. This damaged the country's reputation for high-quality higher education. Scrutiny of overseas operations first by the Higher Education Quality Council and then by the Quality Assurance Agency has now put an end to the worst excesses. The vigilance of governments locally (as in South Africa - page 9) should do the rest.
Beyond this the advantages of a unified brand are less obvious. Implying that all of a country's higher education conforms to a single standard risks an impression of mediocrity: all may be judged by the standard of the weakest. Energetic marketing of a mass brand is unlikely to convince potential overseas students (or their governments) that all universities are equally good, and it does little to dispel the unfortunate impression that Britain's main interest in overseas students is as a source of revenue to subsidise the system.
This impression is particularly hard to counter given the apparently insecure financial state of many universities and the obvious difficulties British governments face in charging home students even a small percentage of the fees overseas students pay. Financial forecasts (page 60) show United Kingdom universities projecting deficits that, if correct when the out-turn figures become available, would put the whole system all but in the red. Such figures are, of course, partly intended to increase pressure on government to produce more money in the next spending review. But unfortunately the message to the overseas market is that UK universities are in dire straits and their ability to provide a top-quality service must be in question. And this at a time when extra money is being pumped into universities and into student support by American state and federal governments.
Meanwhile, trends in international student mobility suggest that the winning strategy may not be to place emphasis on the provision of a mass service with guaranteed minimum standards, but rather to highlight the specialist excellence of individual institutions. Increasingly students who seek to study overseas are postgraduates seeking high-quality courses and research training not available in their own country. This is a highly individual matter that involves picking particular centres of excellence wherever they are in the world.
If the British Council's campaign were to make it harder for individual UK institutions to project themselves as such centres of excellence when the market is moving towards greater differentiation and specialisation, this could prove counter-productive. Continued reliance on mass flows of rich first and sub-degree students wanting to study in the UK is unwise.