There can be few industries in which the United Kingdom has a 25 per cent share of the world market, yet that is the target set for international student recruitment in higher education by 2005.
So ambitious a target would be hard to reach anyway. The UK's share is 17 per cent and falling. But the critical report prepared for the British Council on universities' overseas marketing suggests that radical improvements are needed just to stop the slide. The report finds faults ranging from unprofessionalism and poor strategic thinking to inflexibility and underuse of the web. The UK, it says, has been trading on its reputation.
With one exception, visa muddle, the fault lies with the universities, not with the government. The planned Education UK brand may eliminate the poorest practices by imposing minimum standards, but it is up to individual universities to make sure their international offices are well run and integrated into the rest of the university; that there are proper marketing plans; and that they have a distinctive market position.
It is not just a matter of slicker marketing. The report finds that universities have too few satisfied customers overseas promoting their interests. Few have an active network of overseas alumni, although there are exceptions. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is assiduous in tracking its ex-students' careers through the health ministries of the developing world. UK universities have not only been incompetent at getting students through the doors, there is also too much evidence that overseas graduates do not return home feeling they have had the world's best university experience.
Many gain the impression that university managers regard them as ideal supports for profit-and-loss accounts - too far from home to complain, and with too much at stake to drop out. Too many overseas students are admitted with inadequate qualifications and imperfect English to courses that do not match their needs. Too few universities provide initial support and language teaching or tailor courses. Brands have been over-strained and better marketing alone will not undo the harm.