Students deserve more than a warm welcome

July 23, 1999

If the United Kingdom is to attract larger numbers of overseas students, it needs to put its money where its mouth is, argues Clive Saville

It took the prime minister's encounter with the mayor of Shanghai - a former Chevening scholar - to persuade the government to increase its support for the recruitment of international students and to ease the visa and employment regimes.

Tony Blair proposes to raise the number of international students in higher education by 50,000 (the equivalent of three universities the size of Manchester's) and to double to 50,000 the number of international students in further education. These 75,000 extra students would bring about Pounds 700 million a year into the economy.

The measures announced at the London School of Economics last month are a welcome recognition of the importance of the international student market. But a broader agenda is needed to address internationalisation in terms of its contribution to improving quality, developing the international competence of our graduates, promoting economic development and fostering the growth of civil society. This is more than a marketing strategy.

First, quality and value for money are the main reasons why students choose the United Kingdom. The Dearing report's main contribution to internationalisation was its emphasis on quality in teaching as well as research.

But also relevant to our continuing ability to compete with Australia, Canada and the United States will be the quality of our libraries, laboratories and workshops. Salaries must make academia attractive to the best of the next generation.

Second, there is more to internationalisation than student flows. We want our own students to develop an international perspective. Last year's House of Lords report on student mobility in the European Community suggested ways in which UK students' participation in Socrates-Erasmus programmes could be improved through better language teaching, resourcing and programme management.

More could also be done to encourage study abroad outside Erasmus in a wide range of courses. The government could give student loans and ensure that study abroad does not lead to arguments about fee status for further study on return to the UK.

At institutional level, colleges and universities operate internationally through collaborative research, consultancy, franchising and validation and also through a wide range of developmental links with institutions in other countries. Responding to the Department for International Development's policy paper, Learning Opportunities for All, colleges and institutions can help the poorest countries to build strong and effective institutions that contribute to the eradication of poverty, availability of universal primary education and economic and social development.

They can help nations build the capacity to generate a critical mass of skilled, educated people and to keep them in the country.

They can also contribute to the building of civil society. One of the major functions of a strong, autonomous university sector is the application of independent critical intelligence to the doings of government in order to be able to speak (sometimes unwelcome) truth unto power.

To pursue these objectives we need continued and enhanced support for the work of the Committee for International Co-operation in Higher Education. In the context of skills development the DfID's support for cooperation in further education is welcome.

UK institutions already have a superb reputation for the quality of their support for international students. Key issues for institutions new to the market include the following:

Are academic and non-academic staff sufficiently cross-culturally trained and aware? Do they have the study methods and skills expected?

Are the standards of English required at entry clearly set out and rigorously applied? Is there enough English language support for students?

Is the curriculum relevant to the needs of a global student body and employment market?

Do facilities have the international student in mind? Internationalising Students' Unions, written for Ukcosa by Jo Holliday of the University of Sheffield Union, is a good starting point.

Finally, the government's promised fast-track visas will be confined to a limited number of countries. It will be the majority's experience that matters, both at entry clearance stage and in dealing with the Home Office after entry, where too many are still waiting months for extensions of leave.

For many international students and their advisers, the performance of the Home Office will be the real test of the government's new initiative.

Clive Saville is chief executive of Ukcosa: the Council for International Education

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