UK and Chinese institutions need a cultural revolution to become true international attractions

October 7, 2010

British universities have work to do if they are to become truly international institutions, according to an expert at one of the UK's overseas pioneers.

Christine Ennew, pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation at the University of Nottingham, which has campuses in China and Malaysia, told delegates at the Building a World-Class University conference that UK universities still enrol a relatively small proportion of overseas students, despite claims that many depend on them financially.

"The pace of change is a lot slower than we think. Small differences often get rather exaggerated," she said. "It's helpful to remind ourselves that it's a very small proportion of students in higher education worldwide (that study abroad). We don't see the unhealthy dependence on international student finance that is assumed to exist."

The UK, the US, Germany, France and Australia are the dominant players in the international market, and patterns of student migration reveal hangovers from colonialism, with France, for example, attracting many students from francophone Africa, Professor Ennew said.

Yet despite increasing student migration, she said that only a small proportion of the income of the average UK university comes from tuition fees paid by overseas students.

The cultural benefits of internationalisation far outweighed the financial, she said.

"I think there are real dangers in overestimating the short-term financial benefits of internationalisation of higher education. But if you look more broadly, there is clear evidence and a recognition of the benefits that international students bring to teaching and learning.

"The cultural and political benefits are far more important. It's about getting access to the world's brightest and best ... it's also about contributing to a knowledge economy," Professor Ennew said.

In China, a major exporter of students, the government is attempting to redress the balance by retaining more of its top students while attracting more foreigners to study in its universities.

Yang Wei, president of Zhejiang University, told delegates at the conference that the country had about 30 million students, but less than 3 per cent came from other countries.

Professor Yang blamed cultural factors for China's failure to attract more, and the still-developing Chinese economy for preventing migration of leading faculty, because Chinese institutions cannot compete with the salaries on offer in top Western universities.

The C9 consortium of nine Chinese research universities has been tasked with attracting 10 per cent of undergraduate students from abroad, Professor Yang said, and added that funding has been made available for teaching courses in English to help achieve this goal.

Professor Ennew warned that attitudes needed to change before more UK students would consider an international element to their university education.

"We need to address some of the more cultural or emotional barriers that exist, for example the UK's capability in languages," she said.

Better coordination of study-abroad programmes, with students travelling together in groups and organising transport and accommodation through their home university, would also improve uptake, she suggested.

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