Can the British university stay top dog?

Other countries are moving in on the UK's lucrative market in foreign students. Are our universities up to the challenge?

by Oliver Bennett
Last Updated: 12 Jan 2016

Cath Johnson is an international academic coordinator for the University of the Arts London (UAL). That means that she flies around the world – Russia, the far east, China, elsewhere – taxis to hotels, sleeps her jet lag off, then heads out to meet UAL’s local agents who have been busy finding students who might be interested in attending one of UAL’s constituents: including such famous institutions as the famous Central Saint Martins and Chelsea colleges of art. Johnson leads academic workshops to show the prospective students what to expect, while the reps deals with the nitty-gritty of ‘conversions’ – visas, accommodation – once an offer has been made.

Johnson is one of a small army of such operatives and there’s a good reason UAL invests in her. Her work brings in £11,000 for each foreign student taking an arts foundation course and over £13,000 a year for each BA student. Overall, overseas students are worth almost £7bn to Britain each year, and they’re part of a febrile growth in cross-border education. Some sources (including Unesco) reckon that there will be seven million students studying outside their home country by 2020, a spike caused by increased mobility and demographic and social changes. ‘Previously, higher education abroad was for the children of the elite,’ says a spokesman for the British Council, which promotes the UK’s higher education sector worldwide. ‘Now it’s the children of the middle classes. Economically it’s huge.’

The UK benefits a lot. Some £3.5bn in tuition fees alone were brought into the UK in 2012-13, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and there’s a serious hinterland: BIS estimates the education sector added £18bn to our economy in 2012. Even the vexatious housing boom in London is partly attributed to people looking for student homes.

It’s all a long way from the days when one Emo of Friesland – generally held to be the first foreign student to come to Britain – rocked up at Oxford University way back in 1190. In universities they’re calling this distinctly 21st-century process – sometimes ruefully – ‘internationalisation’. On top of the inflow and outflow of students, there’s also a growing number of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and ‘distance-learning’ degrees and MAs, spreading university ‘brands’ to the world. And there’s a growing number of global universities: 16,000 by some estimates, with Britain having 150 of them. Supporting the sector is a competitive industry of league tables, including the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the US News & World Report rankings and the Global Employability University Ranking from French consultants Emerging. 

‘I think it’s reasonable to call global education one of the major growth industries of the world,’ says Martin Hyde of the Student World, which places students in overseas universities and hosts Study Abroad fairs, including one this month at the Emirates football stadium in London. As if to emphasise its dynamism, Hyde (wrote Going to University Abroad – A guide to studying outside the UK, published by Routledge) started a company called Outreach Education with his son in 2011 and was rapidly bought by US company PlattForm Inc. There’s brass in global grads.

In February, UCAS, the body through which UK students apply to university, announced it would be allowing EU universities to join the system. Maastricht University has in the past said it wants to be able to join UCAS and its marketing is already aimed at ‘fee refugees’: those escaping our £9,000 a year tuition fees in favour of the £1,440 a year it charges. And many others in Europe are already pitching themselves at UK students, says Mark Huntington of A Star Future, an information service and broker for overseas students.

Huntington, an ex-TEFL teacher, set up ASF in 2006 as a ‘conceptual’ exercise. ‘Business really started to grow in 2010-11 and we now deal with 25 Dutch universities,’ he says. ‘The question is whether UK universities can hold off the might of Dutch and German universities, with our price premium.’ Many fees are lower (not the US, though, where fees vary) and the Germans and Danes have no tuition fees at all. Huntington found that British participation in overseas higher education was low – we’re only half as peripatetic as French and German students – but he says: ‘We’ve identified a kind of Russell Group of top 50 universities in Europe, including Groningen and Maastricht,’ he says. ‘We’re their outreach team.’

Increasingly, the ‘pull’ universities aren’t just in Europe. The US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are growing, and taking full advantage of our current restrictive measures on immigration. Asia and Russia are in on the act: the latter has pledged £450m to Project 5-100: trying to get five universities into the global top 100 by 2020. Siberia’s Tomsk State University (pictured) markets English-language engineering degrees for $2,000 to $3,000 a year. Japan’s government has vowed to lure 300,000 international students by 2020. The language barrier is being broken and English as the medium for instruction (EMI) is practised in 1,200 degree courses in Europe alone. 

Moreover, there’s a middle-ground called TNE or ‘transnational education’, whereby British (and other) universities have offshore ‘branch’ campuses in countries such as China, Malaysia and the UAE. Several British universities are embracing TNE, notably Nottingham, which has campuses in Malaysia and China. It’s in its infancy and there have been disasters: when the University of Wales’s Malaysian operation was found to be run by a Malaysian pop star with two bogus degrees, it wasn’t a good look. But it’s still growing, with Liverpool and Reading universities opening TNE branches this year.

Of course, small numbers of people have always travelled to learn. In 1863 University College London hosted the Choshu Five: Japanese noblemen who snuck out of then-closed Japan. Legion are the post-war African leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, who took degrees under the London School of Economics International Programme. ‘The UK has always enjoyed a remarkable knock-on benefit in "soft power" from its higher education,’ says Huntington. But we now need to be vigilant, he says, as our pre-eminence is being challenged.

There have been exchange programmes, most notably the EU’s Erasmus programme and its offshoots, set up in 1987 to encourage student movement. But the main reason for the expansion of overseas higher education has been the Bologna Accord, an EU ruling signed in 1999 by 29 countries and now encompassing 47 countries. It aims to standardise education so a degree in Greece is worth the same as one in the UK. It’s trying to get round the idea that overseas degrees are considered a bit ‘Mickey Mouse’. ‘People have ingrained prejudices,’ counters Huntington. ‘But I tell you that many global CEOs know French universities better than UK ones.’

Hyde placed 250 students in veterinary and medical courses in Bulgaria last year and has been impressed. ‘It’s 8am to 8pm. They take no prisoners. And it’s gaining prestige fast – and recognised by the GMC.’ In the UK, 80,000 people apply for 7,000 medical university places and we can’t even replace our NHS doctors. ‘The UK is still the best in the world,’ adds Hyde, ‘but I don’t think we fully understand how to maintain our competitive advantage.’ And overseas degrees aren’t just in vocational subjects. While British art schools have seen studio space diminish, there’s no such problem in Groningen and Prague, where fine art degrees cost €3,500 to €4,000 a year and offer huge studio spaces. ‘I’ve been telling people studying fine art to get out of the country for years,’ says Huntington. What’s not to like?

I’ve been to Groningen University. After meeting some students in the quaint town, I ended up in an enormous medieval hall playing skittles with beer kegs and bottles.

Groningen University: fees for a fine art degree are €3,500 to €4,000 a year

Were I to have my time again, I’d be entirely happy to go to such a place. So it’s strange that fewer British people have gone to university abroad than we anticipated a couple of years ago. As Hyde says, European universities have tough regimes, with exams at the end of the first year, and socialising may be more difficult. ‘The UK’s attraction isn’t just academic,’ he says. ‘It’s the social life, the clubs. Few foreign countries have that culture.’ Plus, there are different educational practices. A friend, who went to the Sorbonne in Paris, had a ‘terribly boring time. I hardly met anyone and attended one huge impersonal lecture a week.’

Another constraint is that while British students will pay lower fees abroad, they might not get a maintenance allowance. And even if lectures are in English, part-time jobs might be a struggle, not to mention more intangible cultural factors. The 19th-century poet and educationalist Matthew Arnold spoke of the purpose of education as ‘to enable a man to know himself and the world’: an ethos at odds with the results and employment-focused foreign degree. When Cath Johnson goes to China for UAL, she takes art and design workshops to show British-style ‘conceptual thinking’. ‘Chinese art school means 1,000 students standing drawing architectural details.’

Hyde argues that British universities and students should become more hard-nosed and directional. ‘Study in China and you’ll learn Mandarin as well as get a degree. UK plc needs people to speak Mandarin. It will make you more employable.’

There are three pillars to the UK’s standing, says Matthew Batstone of the private New College of the Humanities in London: the English language, a liberal immigration policy and the research excellence and reputation of our institutions. ‘But each of these factors is being eroded, due to widespread English-language teaching, competitive policies from Australia, Canada and the US, and because Asian universities are producing some great research,’ he says. Batstone believes that unless the UK’s HE sector changes, we’ll lose share over the next 10 years.

The most critical conversation at present is about Home Secretary Theresa May (left). As the election approaches, incoming students have become a political football, with May recommending a manifesto commitment to make non-EU students leave and apply for a new visa after their degree. Many, including Sir James Dyson, have disagreed. ‘Our borders must remain open to the world’s best,’ he said.

It’s damaging our long-term income and influence. ‘Look at the US, Canada, Australia – they’re all delighted by UK immigration policy,’ says Kai Peters, CEO of Ashridge Business School. ‘The perception that Britain doesn’t welcome international students has already led to a fall in overseas students taking up places at English universities.’ The old days of bogus colleges above shops in Oxford Street have been largely designed out and while Hyde accepts that some Europeans are here to ride out the European crisis, ‘they still bring all kinds of benefits’.

There’s another thorny problem: namely the resistance of UK universities to thinking in terms of marketing. ‘Academics may feel bludgeoned,’ says Hyde. ‘But the rest of the world has no problem seeing education as a business. Students are customers. They want value for money.’ Kai Peters thinks there’s a bit of ‘sceptred isle’ and ‘fear of the foreign’ going on as well. ‘Plus, we don’t think of ourselves as an "industry". But at least there’s a discussion happening.’

Rob Cockburn, policy officer of University and College Union, which represents British academics, has seen a sense of disquiet grow among his 120,000 members. ‘There are tensions with management techniques and an emphasis on the metrics, rather than the quality, of research. The educational mission has been replaced by commercial logic, and now it’s increasingly a global competition for students and staff.’ To put it in more technocratic language, a report about the future of higher education from the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) states: ‘The vertically integrated, homo-geneous, self-standing institution is under considerable challenge.’

It’s possible some UK universities might go bust. Peters says that the UK’s middle ground may have to lower prices or reorientate degrees to demand. ‘There are 150 universities in the country and they’re all offering English literature. Can they survive?’ A freer market will grow, he says, with incentives for iPads, bursaries and goodie bags; precisely what happens at Study Abroad fairs.

There’s a feeling that now is tea-leaf reading time, to see which way students will go. The spokesman for the British Council cites south Asia: ‘A huge demographic dividend.’ Classic ‘origin’ countries such as India and China are to be joined by Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, while Hyde says we should watch the US: ‘It had laws against mixing education with business that have been repealed. It’s a sleeping giant that’s been unleashed.’ With just 4% of its students from overseas, as opposed to Australia’s 27% and Britain’s 17%, the Americans will be seeking greater market share: indeed, international enrolments in the US increased by 8.1% in 2013-14 alone. And that’s before universities in developing countries eventually have an impact on the blue-chip ‘pull’ countries. ‘Wait until we lose 20% of students,’ says Hyde. ‘Then the government will panic.’

We should be brave, counsels Batstone. ‘Given the relatively static approach to higher-education teaching for many decades, there’s a rich set of opportunities right now. It won’t be long before league tables assess universities for the salaries of their graduates, just as business schools are currently ranked.’ 

Academics don’t like the idea of students as ‘customers’, adds Batstone ‘and I can see why, because the ideal relationship between student and institution is rich and complex. However, in some institutions, too little attention has been paid to the quality of teaching that students actually receive.’ Even at some of Britain’s best universities all a student can expect is the requirement to write only a handful of essays a year. The UK higher-education sector is akin to UK manufacturing in the early 1970s, he says – and it’s time for a complacency check.

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