The war in Iraq will hit efforts by UK universities and colleges to attract more overseas students, although higher education will prove key in rebuilding diplomatic bridges after the conflict, international recruitment experts said this week.
All education recruitment fairs in the Middle East have been cancelled, and the British Council's and universities' international officers predict a dip in recruitment figures similar to the downturn that followed the last Gulf war.
Neil Kemp, the British Council's director of promotions, admitted that the war would make it difficult to achieve targets for the Middle East set out in prime minister Tony Blair's initiative to attract more overseas students to the UK. He said: "If negative perceptions have been created by the war, it's going to cause problems, and we have to find ways to overcome that. It does worry us that growth will slow down, even though numbers will continue to rise. But I am still optimistic about this year."
Investment in links and initiatives in the Middle East by UK universities has brought about a 19 per cent increase in recruitment from the region over the past three years. Latest figures show that there were 10,830 Middle Eastern students in the UK in 2001-02, representing 4.5 per cent of all overseas students.
Clive Saville, chief executive of the UK Council for Overseas Student Admissions, said he thought some students who were considering signing up to UK courses this year might postpone.
But he added: "I hope that students who are already here will see the UK as a safe environment. For some of them, it will be safer than going back home."
British Council officials expect overall targets to attract an extra 50,000 international students to the UK by 2005 to be achieved early, after reports of a "bumper" year so far in 2002-03.
Universities' international officers have reported that their efforts to "quietly keep links open" with academics in Iraq have had the blessing of the Foreign Office.
But this has become more difficult as the conflict has progressed. Earlier this week, for instance, the university in Basra was taken over by Iraqi troops.
David Baker, international officer for Leeds University, said the level of impact on recruitment would be determined by the nature of the war. "If it gets messy and Britain is seen as acting unfairly in cahoots with the US, then it will affect us badly. But at the moment, I am reasonably optimistic," he said.
Mr Kemp said education links would be a "key plank of diplomacy" for the UK once the conflict had ended. "I would love to see investment through education into Iraq to help rebuild the country. That is an important way to build bridges once this is over," he said.
Mr Kemp said that although China had taken a stance against the war, he did not think this would have a significant impact on the important and rapidly growing Chinese recruitment market.
Last year, the number of Chinese students signing up for UK courses in higher education grew by 71 per cent, and by 77 per cent in further education.
Mr Kemp said: "We have been going through exponential growth in China, which is bound to tail off in any case. But we are talking about private-sector individuals who will make rational investment decisions."
Gordon Campbell, international relations adviser for Leicester University, has been working in the Middle East. He said that the situation in Iraq was a political problem that would not necessarily affect student study choices in the long term.
"Probably nothing will happen to help recruitment in the next year, but we are keen to return to Iraq. I think we will be back within a year," he said.
There is also uncertainty over what impact the war might have on the number of European students coming to study in the UK, particularly from France.
New figures show that the UK has slipped behind France and Spain for the first time as the most popular foreign-study destination among European students.
There have been reports that schools in some regions of France have been advised by local authority officials against taking part in pupil exchanges with the UK.
According to John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council, there was no evidence yet that the same advice was being issued to French universities and colleges. But he added: "Unless there was a groundswell of opinion, we probably would not hear about any drop in numbers yet because applications tend not to get firmed up until after Easter."