We can't just think big, we must invest big, too

July 25, 2003

The number of international students in the UKis set to mushroom, says Clive Saville, but are we prepared?

Research conducted for IDP Education Australia suggests that numbers of international students in higher education worldwide are going to grow from about 1.8 million in 2000 to 7.2 million by 2025.

Even without allowing for any growth in the UK's share of the market, this implies that instead of about 240,000 international students at present, we can expect up to 280,000 in 2005 (close to the target set by prime minister Tony Blair in 1999), 400,000 in 2010, 700,000 in 2020 and 900,000 in 2025.

Even if the Australian forecasts prove to be exaggerated, there is clearly still huge potential for growth. And as the numbers of home students will grow more slowly, we are likely to see a significant shift in the balance of the student population. If, in these changing times, UK institutions are to continue to offer international students the high-quality experience they generally do at the moment, the government, higher education funding bodies and institutions must take more account of their needs and importance in their policy-making and strategic planning. The Home Office decision to charge students £155 for a previously free visa extension does not give the impression of joined-up government.

The higher education white paper largely ignored international students and failed to address how the proposed new arrangements for UK students would be implemented for other European Union students. Similarly, consultation by the funding bodies on standards in research-degree programmes acknowledged that their proposed framework had been widely felt to pay "little regard to the requirements of part-time, mature or overseas students". But 26 per cent of all postgraduate students are already from outside the UK. Among full-time postgraduates, 57 per cent of taught higher degree students and 44 per cent of research postgraduates are international.

International students are also concentrated in certain disciplines (25 per cent of students in engineering and technology, 19 per cent of students in business and administrative studies and a far higher proportion of postgraduate students in those subjects), by institution (52 institutions already have more than 2,000 international students) and by country of origin (14 per cent of full-fee paying students come from China, excluding Hong Kong, while one-third come from only four sources - China, Malaysia, the US and Hong Kong).

Against that background, what issues must the government and institutions address?

First, human resources. International students are a long way from home, they have different cultural backgrounds and different expectations about teaching and learning. Their English may be good but they are not native speakers. They have come for a UK experience and may not want to be taught with large numbers of their fellows. All this calls for adequate staffing of support services, generous staff-to-student ratios, appropriate classroom strategies and investment in staff and curriculum development.

Second, physical resources. Where are these students going to be taught, where are they going to do their research and library study and where are they going to live? Physical infrastructure is already under pressure.

Housing provision is often inadequate. Institutions that want to expand significantly will have to invest significantly.

Third, research concentration. We need large numbers of high-quality international research students. The white paper acknowledges the poor state of the research infrastructure. How will recruitment of international students be affected by a policy of even greater selectivity in research funding?

Fourth, Europe. EU students are a major part of the higher education scene.

They will become more so with the accession of ten new member states in 2004 and more in 2007. The Bologna process for the creation of a common European higher education area already involves more than 30 countries. How fully engaged is the UK? Does the process threaten aspects of UK provision, such as the one-year masters degree? How do we encourage UK students to study abroad when they need to work to afford to study at all? Will the government agree to the portability of student loans and grants that ought to be part of the Bologna process?

Finally, outreach. Is all this growth just going to be market-led - which means rich students, whether from rich countries or poor countries? In the 1990s, the world's poor fell further behind - and that included less participation in the internationalisation of higher education. Can some of the extra income that will be generated by growth in the international student market be used to reach out to them?

Clive Saville is chief executive of Ukcosa: the Council for International Education.

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