UK influence abroad at risk from lack of overseas study

Call for international education to be made more attractive to British students, writes Hannah Fearn

June 3, 2010

Two years after a report to the government warned that British universities were seen to be treating international students as a "cash cow", the sector is still taking but not giving.

The message from the head of the British Council echoes a 2008 report by Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, which said the perception that internationalisation was "just about making money" for UK universities could threaten the sector's reputation overseas.

Martin Davidson, the British Council's chief executive, said that there was still a 25:1 imbalance in the number of UK students choosing to study abroad, compared with those coming to the UK.

He said about 500,000 international students came to the UK each year, while the flow in the other direction was between 15,000 and 20,000.

Of those who did venture overseas from UK universities, the majority were studying a modern language, he added.

Approximately 40 per cent of the UK students taking part in Erasmus, a European Union student exchange programme, are linguists, compared with 5 per cent of those participating in the scheme from other countries.

Speaking at a Council for Industry and Higher Education meeting at the London School of Economics last week, Mr Davidson said that more must be done to make student mobility an integral part of UK universities' relationship with their international partners.

"We have a serious problem in the mismatch between the number of British students who are prepared to go overseas and those who come here," he said.

"It's clear our international partners value their UK education; it's less clear that UK students value an international education."

Mr Davidson said that a "language deficit" was inhibiting British students, but it was up to both businesses and universities to prove the value of a semester abroad.

"The UK may soon be the last monolingual culture in the world. We would argue that's a serious deficit in the education system for our young people.

"Without people who are comfortable working in an international context, the UK's international influence is bound to decline over time," he said.

The British Council advised universities to consider what kind of study-abroad experience would attract more UK students to sign up.

Caroline Gipps, vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said appetite for its Chinese study scheme was healthy because it reflected student interests.

At the time that his report was published in 2008, Sir Drummond predicted that the problem would be a difficult one to solve.

"There are various ways of skinning that cat, but it is a difficult cat to skin," he said.

Universities UK said the sector was working to address the imbalance, with institutions investigating the appeal of sandwich courses and shorter placements.

But a spokesman also said that schools had to play a role in equipping young people with the language skills that would enable them to study overseas.

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