Turn back the clock on overseas fees

May 16, 1997

Following the change of government it is timely to reflect on overseas student trends since 1980.

Latest figures from the Department for Education and Employment show that since 1982 the number of full-time and sandwich students from overseas studying in United Kingdom universities and colleges has risen from 56,600 in 1982 to a provisional 151,000 in 1995. When, however, we break the totals down into the European Union (EU) the Commonwealth and other countries a less satisfactory picture emerges. Whereas students from the EU have increased in number from 6,200 to 63,000 and in percentage terms from 11 per cent to 42 per cent of the total, students from other countries have increased from 20,700 to 42,100 but reduced in percentage terms from 36 per cent to 28 per cent of the total. Students from the Commonwealth have increased from 29,800 to only 46,300 and reduced in percentage terms from 53 per cent of the total to only 31 per cent of the total.

Although statistics are unavailable, I have heard enough anecdotal evidence in Africa and South Asia during the past five years to suggest that the decline in the number of students from the poorest countries coming to the UK has continued since 1995.

The United States and, increasingly, Australia, with generous aid-funded support schemes, are recruiting very successfully, not only in the Pacific Rim countries but also elsewhere in the English-speaking world. During the cold war further students were lost to British institutions as communist regimes, particularly in Africa, sent their most able young people to the former communist countries. Half a generation of graduates in some developing countries has no allegiance to the UK.

This loss is not only adversely affecting British influence in universities and colleges in those countries but has also weakened our cultural and commercial links. It is important for educational, cultural and commercial reasons that fee structures for overseas students are re-examined in the new parliament.

One of the first acts of the Thatcher government was to publish a white paper announcing that overseas students starting courses from September 1980 onwards would be expected to meet the full cost of their tuition. Assistance, including provision for meeting tuition fees, would continue to be given under a number of schemes within Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Overseas Development Administration programmes.

These proposals caused an immediate furore within universities and colleges, which realised the adverse impact they were likely to have on the recruitment of overseas students, particularly from third world countries in the Commonwealth. In the light of widespread concern, the overseas development subcommittee of the foreign affairs select committee began an investigation into the Government's decision in January 1980. Its report recognised that since 1966, when all overseas students were charged the same fees as home students, there were a number of progressive increases for overseas students so that by 1980 their fees at postgraduate level were 38 per cent higher and at undergraduate level 57 per cent higher than those for UK students.

The committee stated that the imposition of full-cost fees would inevitably lead to a reduction in the number of students financed by the aid programme with a consequential loss to the economies of developing countries. It further noted the evidence of a decline in the number of students from poorer countries studying in Britain which had been masked by the rapid rise in the number of students from middle-income countries; a trend which it forecast would be exacerbated by the Government's decision.

The committee was critical that Britain's commitment under the Treaty of Rome bound it to treat European Community students as home students for the purpose of determining their fee levels to the comparative detriment of the associated African, Caribbean and Pacific states. Above all, the committee was horrified to discover that the Government's decision to reduce the ODA's support for overseas students had been taken within the Department of Education and Science without consultation with the FCO or the ODA.

If Labour's new foreign affairs select committee accepts my argument it may find that many of the 1980 committee's recommendations are worth pursuing. These include the need for: better inter-departmental planning and co-operation between the Department for Education and Employment and the ODA; significantly improved statistics; and a special study of the needs of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries jointly with the European Union.

Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler is a management consultant specialising in the international development and marketing of further and higher education. He is a former Member of Parliament.

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