The UK has a natural advantage in the global education market, but that may not be enough, says Bernd Wachter
Britain's universities are among the most successful providers of education worldwide. Only the US attracts larger numbers. What has made UK higher education so attractive? While no single element can explain global student flows, language plays a key role.
Universities and colleges that teach in English, academia's lingua franca , have a natural advantage. Already faced with competition for international students from countries such as Australia, can Britain remain immune to challenges from Europe? Perhaps not. Continental universities have started to offer English-taught programmes, and teaching on these programmes is not hampered by a poor command of English among students and faculty, as some linguists predicted it might be.
English-taught education is rare in southern Europe, so the UK and Ireland need not fear competition from there. But Nordic and Dutch institutions are getting serious about the business. Continental Europe has a fair way to go before it offers a serious challenge to Britain, however.
First, the reservoir of international students worldwide is huge - and is likely to rise further, as research by IDP Australia has demonstrated.
Second, despite all the continental efforts, only 4 per cent of degree programmes at the institutions surveyed over recent months by the Brussels-based Academic Cooperation Association are offered in English. In addition, only 1 per cent of higher education students in continental Europe are enrolled on such programmes. The issue is simply one of capacity, but that may change. Growth in recent years has been rapid. About half of English-taught programmes have been created in the past five years alone.
Continental Europe appears to be rising to other challenges where it has typically lagged behind the UK and the US. Its universities are fiercely marketing their wares to international students, activities that were not too long ago regarded as "un-academic". National governments are investing significant sums of money into putting their universities on the global map. France, which for a long time displayed an unshakable belief in the "natural" attractiveness of its universities and grandes ecoles , even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has created its own higher-education marketing agency.
Add to these cultural changes the innovative potential of the Bologna process, through which most countries on the continent intend to replace their internationally little-understood degrees in favour of a system of bachelors and masters by 2010, and some of the UK's unique selling points look less secure, even before the issue of tuition fees is fed into the equation.
As in all human endeavour, the speed of reform somewhat lags behind self-confident announcements, and change is punctuated with retreats as well as advances, but change is taking place. The combined effects of such exercises might affect the British sector in a number of years.
But there is one serious obstacle to continental dreams of becoming the most sought-after destination for the education-thirsty youth of the world - cost. In most of Europe, governments and academia still insist that education should be free of charge for domestic and foreign students alike.
In those few cases in which tuition fees have been introduced, such as recently in Austria, amounts range between the symbolic and the ridiculous.
Some universities in countries that have retained a no-fee regime appear to be able to circumvent the restriction by relabelling tuition fees as payments for services. But these cannot provide a model for solutions across entire higher education systems.
Imagine that - through the combined effects of English-taught programmes, marketing and recruitment and the Bologna reforms - Europe managed to increase its proportion of foreign students to 20 per cent or more. Could the public in debt-ridden Europe possibly be persuaded that high tax contributions should be partly spent on educating the youth of the world for free? Present higher education finance philosophies may be commendable from an ethical point of view, but the success of continental Europe in the global education market may mark its failure.
So can Britain rest on its laurels? In their new quest for change, Europeans might finally decide to slaughter this holy cow, too.
Bernd Wächter is director of the Academic Cooperation Association and co-author of English-Language-Taught Degree Programmes in European Higher Education , a study based on a survey of 1,550 universities in 19 non-English-speaking countries.