Institutions warned to act now or lose foreign income to rivals. Rebecca Attwood and Tariq Tahir report
Overseas students will spurn UK universities unless more effort is made to integrate them, the sector was warned this week.
A recent British Council report put the export value of education and training as a whole at £28 billion, more than the financial services and car industries.
However, concern has been mounting that some universities are not doing all they could to ensure that international students mix with those from the UK, potentially alienating them and damaging the quality of their experiences.
Figures from a survey by the International Graduate Insight Group, i-graduate, published in full this week, show the UK lags behind its competitors when it comes to integrating foreign students into university life.
As The Times Higher reported last week, the same survey revealed that UK universities are well ahead of rivals in the US, Australasia, the Netherlands and South Africa in the core areas of teaching and learning support. But they do not do so well in the areas of enabling overseas students to make friends, fit into the host nation's culture and get to know its students.
This week, Martin Davidson, the British Council's director general, was due to tell a Council for Higher Education and Industry conference on internationalising education: "We have always marketed ourselves on the quality of education, and we know that is one aspect that is very important for foreign students. But another aspect is the quality of the student experience, and that means engaging with and enjoying campus life. Universities have not taken this as seriously as they could have in the past, but it's time for them to take it more seriously. If we don't deliver, then students will go elsewhere."
The British Council this week announced a £6 million fund to support the development of partnerships between UK institutions and those in other countries. The money will be available over four years as part of former Prime Minister Tony Blair's drive to get more overseas students to study in Britain. The council is initially inviting bids for a share of £2 million for 2007-08 to fund research co-operation and to support overseas collaborations on the development and delivery of university courses.
The problem of integration was also raised at the recent Labour conference in a fringe meeting called "Education: The Great Invisible Export?" At this event, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said the Government, universities and the British Council needed to continue to "think long and hard" about how to keep attracting overseas students to the UK.
He said the market was getting more competitive and added that there was a risk that overseas students could sometimes feel isolated.
"I recall, earlier this year, the Malaysian Education Minister saying to me very politely, 'You need to understand, Minister, that our students are very shy when they come to your campuses,'" he told delegates.
"What he meant was that they come to our universities and too often they are isolated, they're on courses where predominantly it is overseas students... In the longer run - unless we better integrate them within our campuses - they are not going to come here."
The meeting heard that, while the UK was the second most popular destination for international students after the US, there was no room for complacency.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, warned there was now "an international battle for talent".
"We put a huge amount of effort into making our courses attractive, making our campuses attractive and hopefully welcoming for students," she said. "But it would be wrong to be complacent about being able to sustain our competitive position. It is marginal, but we are losing market share."
Lord Kinnock, British Council chair, said there had to be recognition that international students had travelled a long way and were spending "a hell of a lot of money".
"When people are miserable, it is not only a personal tragedy, it also means they say they are not getting value for money," he said.