Western dominance of education under threat

The UK is retaining its share of the international student market, but for how long? Phil Baty reports

August 27, 2009

Anglo-American dominance of the international student market could be challenged by the emergence of new global power blocks in higher education.

This is the view of Don Olcott, chief executive of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, who has coined the term "new global regionalism" to describe a process that is likely to have an impact on the long-term flow of students into the UK and US.

"Are we really naive enough to think that China, India, Malaysia, South Korea, the Gulf states and others do not want to build long-term, high-quality, sustainable university systems in their countries and regions to serve their students?" he said.

"It would certainly not be the first time, nor probably the last, that Western countries have completely misread global developments."

The trend to new global regionalism was started by the Bologna Process in Europe, he said. The Bologna Declaration commits European countries to harmonising their higher education systems, creating a European Higher Education Area to promote student and staff mobility and to help attract more international students to Europe.

Dr Olcott told Times Higher Education: "International student mobility is fluid, and making long-term predictions of where students will go is complex at best."

But he added: "Following the Bologna Process' lead, there is increasing concern that similar regional blocks are beginning to develop in other regions of the world - where students and universities choose to study and build partnerships in their region rather than abroad."

Although the UK is a signatory to the Bologna Declaration, a 2008 report to the Government, Internationalisation of HE: A Ten-Year View, by Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, warns that continental Europe is increasingly becoming a threat to the UK's standing in the overseas market.

The report says that while the UK's share of the market is holding up at 11 per cent, second only to the US, it is now growing "at a significantly slower rate than some of its main competitors".

"Of these, Europe has to be taken much more seriously than in the past ... the European challenge is very real," it says.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has priced the total cost of a UK degree at $93,382 (£56,600), compared with $66,623 in Germany. Sir Drummond's report notes the increasing number of courses being delivered in the English language in Europe.

France, it says, now has 8.5 per cent of the market, after a period of rapid growth.

It also notes threats from the Asia-Pacific area: "Demographic pressures in other parts of the world could drive new competition, too - there will be surplus capacity in Japan and Korea, for example, while Singapore and Malaysia, not to mention Adelaide, have clearly articulated ambitions to be centres of internationalised education."

The report adds that the UK's share of overseas students had fallen just 0.5 per cent in the past eight years, and there was no reason to assume an imminent "collapse".

But it says: "We should not bank on a significant long-term increase in the market, and certainly not in market share."

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi, said Mr Olcott's analysis was right, "but only up to a point".

"Countries such as China and India are desperately developing their own university systems, but they have started from so far behind that there will be a long time lag," he said.

"It is not an immediate-term concern. In the longer term, there will be little reason for students from China, for example, to study at UK institutions which do not have a serious global brand.

"In the long term, the international student market may well not be a sustainable industry for the UK. While some universities will retain a global brand, others may have to stop making assumptions about future income from overseas students."

Philip Altbach, Monan professor of higher education at Boston College, and director of its Centre for International Higher Education, agreed that countries such as China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and the Gulf states wanted to build up their higher education and research capacity, and to attract more overseas students.

But he was cautious about their ability to eat into the UK-US market share.

"I think that some of them will not succeed fully and, in any case, it will take a reasonably long time. Some, like China, are doing rather well already.

"Others, like South Korea, are spending a lot of money but do not seem to have a very realistic strategy and might, for geopolitical reasons, simply not be too attractive.

"Some, like the Gulf states, might be too small to succeed, regardless of resources. In others words, it is a mixed picture," he said.

He added that many of the brightest students would continue to prefer to come to the US or UK, "regardless of what happens at home".

"The US and UK cannot be complacent about their leadership, but if they are able to maintain quality standards and continue to invest in higher education, I think that they will be able to maintain global leadership," he said.

"After all, higher education is not a zero-sum game - the development of quality universities outside Europe and North America does not mean less quality, or a disappearing market, in North America."

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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