Time to spread their wings

To keep up with the global sector's rising stars, the UK must encourage its young to study abroad, says Martin Davidson

February 24, 2011

By 2030, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that about 80 per cent of the world's urban population will be living in developing countries. Young, driven and conscious of the opportunities available elsewhere, this population will be hungry for higher education and should prove a healthy source of students for universities in countries such as the UK.

Already, new urban populations are a wellspring of employment for a graduate workforce with experience studying and working in international settings. What might this mean for Western countries, including the UK?

While the US and the UK continue to dominate the world higher education market, each faces competition. British Council research indicates that the market share of both is declining. The way to reverse this trend may seem difficult, if not counter-intuitive.

To keep up with the rising stars, the UK needs to encourage its young people to spend time studying abroad. Currently, 1.7 per cent of British students venture overseas, causing a significant imbalance between the number of students coming in and going out. The US is not much better.

But a balanced strategy is better placed to succeed in today's global market. The reason concerns the strengthening link between economic development and the global academy, and the resulting emphasis on international collaboration. Nations around the world expect higher education to play an important part in economic recovery and growth, and in bolstering their position on the world stage. Universities must rise to the challenge.

So how can we increase the number of British students studying elsewhere? The Index for International Education, developed by the British Council to measure the effectiveness of national policies in this area, shows where we need to look. Germany has made huge strides: the government wants half of all home students to spend at least one semester abroad. China and Malaysia have also made progress, offering comprehensive scholarship programmes for domestic students studying overseas.

In the present economic climate, it will be hard for the UK to invest in similar programmes for outward-bound students. However, the British Council will be launching a web portal detailing opportunities for overseas study. Student-exchange programmes are also helpful - but only if they are accredited parts of students' courses.

Another option is to broaden the student ambassador scheme operating under Erasmus, the European Commission's educational-exchange programme, which encourages students who have studied abroad to share their experiences. Finally, research shows how much employers value graduates who have spent time abroad. Perhaps greater involvement from industry could open up new overseas study options.

Another factor for market leaders, the index indicates, is balancing inward and outward academic mobility. Once again, Germany and China have extensive programmes in this area, as well as special streams for academic visa applicants. It would be advantageous and cost-effective for the UK to follow suit.

In addition, state-funded universities need to look closely at the more flexible, fast-moving, internationalised outlook of the private sector. It is already moving into areas where the public education sector is underfunded, including developed nations such as the UK and rapidly developing nations such as India.

Partnerships will be essential, whether achieved via "capacity building" in Zambia or Nepal, where the seeds for future investment can be planted by knowledge transfers or curriculum building, or via cross-border research collaboration. In Germany, 50 per cent of academic publications are co-authored with foreign researchers.

Already, we are seeing widespread - and rapid - internationalisation of higher education, creating new global and regional networks and reshaping the landscape. The idea of the university as a global economic powerhouse is just beginning.

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