Agency set up to attract students to Australasia says UK institutions are 'complacent'. Tony Tysome reports
A British private company is encouraging students to shun their home universities and study abroad instead. The new company says UK institutions have become too complacent and expensive.
Degrees Ahead is telling prospective students that the introduction of top-up tuition fees in England and Wales last year means that taking a degree in Australia, New Zealand or Hong Kong is cheaper than staying in the UK, once living costs are taken into account.
The firm, set up by former Study Link chief executive Andrew Thick, is acting as an agent for overseas institutions. Its belief that it can do brisk business is bolstered by the prospect of the £3,000 cap being lifted on fees in the UK after 2009, combined with a growing emphasis from employers on the value of students' overseas experience.
But the company has met with a robust response from vice-chancellors questioning its sales pitch.
Jo Turner, the managing director of Degrees Ahead, said UK universities had been "complacent" about growing competition for home students from the expanding global higher education market. "They have not had much competition so far, so they have rested on their laurels. But they are definitely going to have to shift up a few gears if they don't want students to start looking for better deals in other countries," she said.
Ms Turner said Australian universities now recognised the UK as "a significant recruitment market" for them. "The message we are trying to get across is that combining a cultural experience with an affordable degree course is now a realistic and attractive option for UK students.
"Our concern is that UK students don't lose out on opportunities due to lack of information. Across the globe, there are about 8 million students studying abroad, yet the UK has one of the lowest student mobility rates in the world. One of the problems is that UK universities are not pushing the idea, because it's not in their interests to do so. That is why there is not much information on studying abroad."
A Universities UK spokesperson questioned whether there was any major increase in interest in overseas degrees. He said official figures from Australian Education International showed that there were 1,932 UK students studying at an Australian university in 2006 - up by just 15 students since 2005. This was fewer than the 2,295 Australian students in UK higher education in 2006.
"We would also question any sweeping claim that it would be cheaper for UK students to study overseas. This ignores the breadth of financial support now available to students in the UK that would not be available overseas," he said. "Higher education is a growing market, with predictions that nearly 6 million people will be seeking an international higher education experience by 2020. The UK's reputation is second to none, though, and we are in a prime position to take advantage of this."
Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, warned British students about the quality of some Australian universities' offerings.
He said: "It may be a case of 'never mind the cost, feel the quality'. Many Australian universities are having to withdraw from campuses in certain countries such as China because of concerns about their standards. That is why they are now turning their attention to recruiting students from the UK."
The CIHE's report Global Horizons for UK Students calls for more efforts to be made to encourage home students to spend some time studying abroad. But it would be better for students to spend a short time immersed in the culture of a non-English speaking country rather than doing their whole degree in somewhere like Australia, Mr Brown said.
"Doing your degree in Australia is not necessarily the kind of experience employers are looking for," he added.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of Ukcosa, the Council for International Education, said that "anything that makes it more attractive for UK students to spend some of their time overseas is a good thing".
Christine Bateman, director of Education UK, the British Council's marketing arm, agreed. But she added: "Going abroad to do a full degree is more expensive, and I would imagine that, for most students, financing it is still quite a challenge."