UK offers openness and quality assurance, but access remains a problem

June 9, 2011

A wide-ranging analysis that attempts to measure and rank aspects of national higher education systems suggests that the UK academy is one of the most "open" in the world and has among the best quality assurance, but is also one of the least equal.

The findings from the British Council's International Education Index were presented last week at the Nafsa: Association of International Educators conference in Vancouver.

The index is based on an analysis of the higher education policies of 22 countries and scores nations according to several criteria. It was described by Janet Ilieva, head of research for education intelligence at the council, as an attempt to "put some structure into the existing body of knowledge on international education".

In the category of "openness", which looks at international strategies, visa and migration policies and the regulatory environment, France tops the table, followed by the UK, Australia and the Netherlands.

France was deemed to have the most hospitable visa and immigration policies, an area of concern in the UK in recent months.

In the category of "quality assurance and degree recognition", Australia comes first, followed by Germany and the UK. However, for "access and equity" the UK scores poorly, ranking 17th out of 22.

Dr Ilieva said that other countries had proved better than the UK at expanding international provision without compromising widening-access initiatives, adding that "the UK does not have as strong a commitment as other European countries to outbound mobility".

The top performers according to this measure are Germany, France and South Korea.

The UK fared badly in only one of the measurements, but the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar performed poorly on all three criteria - particularly Qatar, which, despite major investment in higher education, came in the bottom two for every measure.

Dr Ilieva said that gaining the cooperation of the Arab nations for the index had been a struggle.

Keep it in perspective - 'It's not good just because it's international'

With 9,000 delegates flying in to Vancouver from every part of the world, the internationalisation of higher education appears to be a hotter topic than ever.

But is what was until recently a relatively peripheral area of university activity turning into an "industry", becoming bloated, self-referential and unfocused?

These were the questions raised in a session titled "The End of Internationalisation", led by Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

Panellists argued that as internationalisation shifts to become a "core" mission, universities must be wary of the fact that internationalisation "has become a catch-all phrase for everything" and keep a close eye on what they are doing and why.

Among the participants in the session, which was covered by InsideHigherEd, was Uwe Brandenburg, a consultant from the Centre for Higher Education Development in Germany.

Mr Brandenburg said that internationalisation "is not a goal in itself".

"It's a means to an end. It's an instrument to achieve something. It's not good just because it's international," he added.

Mr Brandenburg was particularly critical of the way in which institutions use statistics to "prove" that they are keeping up with their rivals in terms of international activity.

"My favourite useless BS indicator is the number of (international) partnerships," he said. "Every university can tell you how many partnerships they have - 241 or 358. The number means nothing. (The same is true for) the percentage of international students. What does it mean? Why do you want to have 50? Why do you want to have 20?"

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