Select Committee on Education and Skills Eighth Report

2  International aspects of higher education

Why internationalism matters

6. There are a number of reasons why what happens internationally in higher education is important to the UK's higher education sector. As we said in our report on the Bologna Process, the UK is the second most popular destination in the world for international students, and the most popular country for study amongst EU students, who make up approximately 5% of students in UK HE institutions.[4] It has a high reputation for the quality of research; according to Research Councils UK, "In terms of its research base the UK is internationally excellent and highly productive, and by many measures is second only to the US in terms of the quality of its output."[5] This in turn attracts both investment and people. The British Council told us that over the period from 1995-6 to 2002-03 on average around 1.4 academics arrived in the UK for every one who left.[6]

7. The benefit, in purely financial terms, of being the choice of place of study for 100,000 EU student and over 200,000 non-EU students is enormous. The Higher Education Policy Institute has recently calculated that the net direct cash benefit from fee income and living expenditure of EU students is at least £800 million per year; for non-EU students the figure is £3.3 billion. EU and non-EU students who go on to work in the UK after graduating are calculated to increase GDP by £2 billion per year.[7] These are huge sums of money for universities and for the wider economy, and so at least maintaining, and preferably increasing, the numbers of students is a vital task.

8. While the picture is relatively good for the higher education sector, there are significant challenges. Research capacity is growing elsewhere, particularly in China and India. We were told that the USA had increased its research investment in China by 25% a year in recent years, but only by 8% a year in the UK.[8] The expanding economies of countries such as India and China are generating an increasing number of potential HE students and a number of countries have taken steps to make themselves attractive destinations. Australia has substantially increased investment in recruitment measures, and 18 mainly US and Australian international campuses have been established in Singapore in only three years.[9] We also learnt in Australia that, because of skill shortages, a student studying there might gain points towards residency entitlement, which clearly acts as an incentive.

9. Advantages can quickly erode. Having English as the medium of teaching has helped the UK to maintain its popularity with international students, but now courses taught in English are available in many non-English speaking countries, including France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands.[10] Studying for a degree or post-graduate qualification is more expensive in the UK than anywhere else except private US universities,[11] and a recent survey suggested that a significant minority of international students thought that the value for money of the education they received in UK HE institutions was unsatisfactory.[12] Institutions may therefore find that they have become reliant on income from international students which is not stable in the medium or long term. On the other hand, we were told that on the basis of costs compared with revenue generated there was no significant financial premium from recruiting international students.[13]

10. International students also constitute more than a quarter of all post-graduate students in the UK, and more than 50% of post-graduates in six broad subject areas.[14] International students are therefore maintaining the viability of some subjects for post-graduate study in this country, as well as providing significant income. In this sense the UK higher education sector, at post-graduate level, is becoming less domestic and more international.

11. The rapid expansion of the HE sectors in China and India presents another challenge for the UK. Half of all non-EU students who study in the UK come from just five countries; China (which accounts for almost a quarter of the total) and India are two of them and Hong Kong is another.[15] Increased HE provision in these countries may well prove attractive to those who might otherwise travel abroad to study, not least because of reduced costs.

12. Martin Davidson, Director General of the British Council, described the factors that led international students to choose a particular country or institution in which to study:

"They are looking for, first of all, the quality of the educational experience they are going to get, they are looking for international comparability and usability of the qualifications they obtain, they are looking for the quality of the experience that they get and they are looking for the capacity to improve their work opportunities on graduation. That set of things which the international students are looking for is pretty well founded and clearly students see themselves as operating in the international market, they will move to whichever country, or set of institutions, is able to deliver that set of goods for them."[16]

13. Is internationalism in higher education anything more, however, than a market in which the most successful operators are able to generate increased income? Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, argued that it had other less tangible but vitally important characteristics:

"Why is all of this important? Speaking locally, parochially, for Cambridge it is absolutely a matter of keeping the university among the handful of universities recognised as the best in the world. For the nation, universities extend the UK's influence around the world, in addition to being a foreign currency earner, through the students we educate and through the impact of our research. Finally, I believe it is healthy, helpful and actually critical for there to be several centres of excellence in the world. The UK is one and it is of global importance, not just of national importance, that we remain one."[17]

We agree that increased internationalisation of higher education potentially brings great benefits, both economic and otherwise, for the UK and its universities. We now turn to look at a number of issues which we believe need to be addressed if the UK is to build on its position of strength internationally.

International collaboration

14. One of the main messages that were heard on visits and in evidence was that in order to maintain its position as one of the most popular countries for international students, it was important for the UK and UK institutions to develop collaborations, not just to treat students as a market to be exploited. Professor Bernadette Robinson of the University of Nottingham argued that the development of cross-national relationships would be a vital factor in sustaining student flows and generating research projects.[18] Professor Lan Xue of Tsinghua University said that UK universities had been aiming largely at attracting students to the UK rather than developing collaborative programmes. The UK was not in the top 5 of countries whose HE institutions were involved in joint programmes with Chinese universities.[19]

15. The emphasis on collaboration is born out of a recognition that the developing capacity of the higher education sectors in places such as India and China means that some of their institutions will increasingly be seen as leaders in particular research fields. Professor Phil Brown of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, Cardiff University, said:

"I think, more and more, we have got to stop thinking that we are going to be the winners all the time; basically, more of these research jobs now are going to go to Asia. I think the thing that we have to do, more than anything else, is develop the links, international links, with other high-rated universities and research institutes so that we will get some of this work. It is highly likely that the leading corporations will not be putting all their eggs in one basket, they will be spreading a lot of this work and development around and we have to get a slice of that action."[20]

16. There is already an initiative in place to try to address these issues in relation to India. The UK India Education and Research Initiative, a collaborative venture managed by the British Council, established numerous partnership arrangements in 2006-07, including 30 research partnerships and seven collaborations on HE teaching.[21] Tim Gore, Director of Education for the British Council in India, said that if the UK wanted the best students who would stay on to do post-graduate work, then it had to be done

"By partnerships, not with pure marketing; there has to be a brand presence of the UK universities […]. They have to be recognised, they have to do things, they have to engage, they have to give talks, they have to engage in high level activities, and that will build the interest."[22]

17. There are already collaborative ventures between the UK and Chinese higher education sectors. The Universities of Nottingham and Liverpool have both established campuses in China, and we met staff of the University of Nottingham Ningbo campus and visited Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University during our visit to China. The former is a joint venture with Zhejiang Wanli Education, based in Ningbo, and the Liverpool venture is a joint project with Xi'an Jiaotong University. Both are private HEIs and receive no funding from the Chinese government. Professor Lan praised the Ningbo venture but thought it would be a difficult example to follow because of the of the high level of investment on both sides. [23] Both Ningbo and XJTLU have approval from the Ministry of Education, but we were told that the Ministry was unlikely to sanction any further joint ventures until it has assessed how well these were working. Collaboration is therefore more likely to be on matters such as joint course development.[24]

18. We agree that collaboration and partnership working are vital for the future development of the international dimension in higher education. We welcome projects such as the UK India Education and Research Initiative and recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the British Council and their partners in the university sector explore the possibility of developing similar arrangements for China and for other countries. Joint ventures are likely to involve the development joint courses and undertaking joint curriculum development, as there will be no further approvals of joint campuses until the Chinese government has assessed the success of those established so far.

19. It is important that it is not just the research-intensive universities which engage in international collaboration. Professor Richard spoke about "an array of universities [in the UK] doing rather different things and many of them doing [them] very well […] Anglia Ruskin does things that Cambridge University cannot do and vice versa."[25] CMU told us that "Modern universities have spearheaded international partnerships and recruitment, established campuses overseas, provided flexible opportunities through e-learning for domestic and international students and are key contributors to UK exports and trade in higher education."[26]

20. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission told us that there is an increasing focus on vocational education by the Chinese government. Sixty per cent of senior secondary students are on the academic route and the other 40% are on the vocational route. There are no fees for vocational courses and grants are available for students. The Commission is already working with some overseas institutions (for example from Germany and Australia) on vocational education. The development of pedagogy is another issue that was raised with us on a number of occasions during our visit. Professor Lan agreed that there was scope for involvement by UK universities, but emphasised again that any initiatives had to be structured and collaborative.[27] We recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the British Council explore with institutions in China and in the UK how best to build on initiatives already taken to improve collaboration in higher education, including vocational education and the development of pedagogy. As part of that exercise, the Government should provide funding to facilitate collaboration, including the establishment of a major, prestigious foundation, in partnership with the private sector, to provide scholarships and fellowships. These are issues which should be discussed at the high level UK/China summit which we understand is to be held in China in September.


21. We discussed ways of improving the experience for post-graduate students seeking to come to the UK. Professor Richard said that the UK under-funded post-graduate education, certainly by comparison with the US, where leading universities would pay fees and give generous bursaries to ensure the most highly qualified students went to them.[28] This lack of structured support helps to explain why Chinese students come to Britain in large numbers for undergraduate or one year Masters courses but less so for doctoral studies.[29] The provision of high quality post-graduate education is essential to enable the HE sector to thrive. If the UK higher education sector is to succeed in attracting the most highly qualified students to study here at post-graduate level, it needs to work with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to provide more systematic support.


22. To maximise the benefits of international education, student flows need to be two way. We examined ways of encouraging larger numbers of students from the UK to undertake part of their studies in another country. We were told that the number of UK students going abroad on the EU's Erasmus programme had reduced in recent years,[30] although UK student mobility was still around the average for countries in the programme.[31] A variety of reasons for this decline and relative lack of mobility were put to us, including lack of language knowledge, questions about the acceptability of credits from courses taken abroad to UK institutions, cost and the perceived usefulness of taking part in the programmes.[32] It was also suggested that with most UK undergraduate courses lasting for three years it was more difficult to find time for overseas study than for students from continental European countries whose courses tend to last longer.[33]

23. We looked at these issues when we examined the Bologna Process, and the recommendations we made there still stand, including the need for a targeted fund to encourage mobility, especially amongst students who live at home while at university.[34]

24. The problem of students' unwillingness to study abroad can be addressed in a number of ways. One is for the HE sector to be more strategic, to decide as a matter of policy that more students should spend time in another country and aim to facilitate that. Another is flexibility. Many students would welcome the opportunity to study abroad for shorter periods—3 or 6 months—rather than a whole year. Having a proper credit transfer system would clearly also be of great benefit. The situation needs to be addressed rapidly to ensure that the UK does not lose out in both cultural and economic terms.

25. Underlying all of these issues is the need for a concerted drive to improve foreign language capacity. This will require action in schools, but universities should also provide intensive short courses to enable students to undertake study abroad. Some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, should continue to be treated as strategically important subjects to ensure that capacity in them is retained.


26. The quality of the education on offer is key to continued success in attracting international students to the UK. As the Chief Executive of HEFCE said in our very first meeting in the inquiry, the UK cannot compete on price, so it must compete on quality.[35] Two aspects in particular interest us here; the quality of the experience international students have when coming to the UK, and the quality assurance for collaborative ventures involving UK universities abroad.

27. On the first, we were told that some students are dissatisfied if the majority of students on their course are also from overseas. Martin Davidson said:

"[…] there is very strong evidence of dissatisfaction amongst students about the educational experience they get if there is a predominance of foreign students, particularly if it is a predominance of foreign students from a particular country, most usually China, on that particular course. Certainly there are some courses in the UK where upwards of 75% of the students may well be from overseas, and I think that does have an impact on the overall reputation of the institution overseas."[36]

28. Professor Richard said that the UK had to operate "at the very high end of quality" and that there was a risk that, to address "the under funding of our educational activities historically", universities would be tempted

"to go for volume rather than go for quality. You bring in overseas students at premium fees. They are not necessarily the best students, because the best students will be going to institutions that will give them financial support, and then they do not get the experience that they had anticipated paying those premium fees and you suddenly get into a downward spiral".[37]

International students bring academic, cultural and financial benefits, and the majority of universities have international strategies which recognise that. The HE sector needs, however, to guard against the risk that the recruitment of international students will be seen as driven by short term gains in fee income by ensuring that the teaching and research offered are of high quality. Building genuine partnerships and engaging in thoughtful collaborations will lead to more sustainable relationships with institutions and students from other countries.

29. UK institutions offering courses in other countries are subject to scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency. We were told in China that there had been some sensitivity there about an overseas agency coming to examine institutions, which we hope the QAA will take note of for the future. Professor Lan said that there were state council regulations regarding standards for collaboration and joint programmes, but that in the first instance it was for institutions themselves to evaluate the quality of their partners. The ultimate arbiters of quality would be the students, saying whether or not the education they were receiving was of high quality.[38] Universities need to ensure that their partnerships in other countries are designed to provide high quality education in order to be sustainable for the long term.

4   Education and Skills Committee, The Bologna Process, Paras 81 and 102.  Back

5   Ev 210 Back

6   Ev 183 Back

7   The Economic Costs and Benefits of International Students, HEPI, July 2007, para 26. Back

8   Q 636 Back

9   Ev 184 Back

10   Q 634 Back

11   Ev 183 Back

12   The Economic Costs and Benefits of International Students, para 33. Back

13   Qq 760-1 Back

14   Ev 183, para 10, Ev 184, para 14, and Q 633. The subject areas are: law; engineering and technology; business and administrative studies; architecture, building and planning; computer science; and social studies. Back

15   Ev 184, para 12. The USA and Malaysia are the other two countries. Back

16   Q 580 Back

17   Q 746 Back

18   Q 609 Back

19   Qq 795, 801 Back

20   Q 635 Back

21   Q 817 Back

22   Q 826 Back

23   Qq 806-7 Back

24   Q 610 Back

25   Q 750 Back

26   Ev 329, para 14 Back

27   Q 813-4 Back

28   Q 757 Back

29   Q 805 Back

30   Q 583 Back

31   Q 782 Back

32   Q 583 Back

33   Q 585 Back

34   The Bologna Process, paras 54 to 57. Back

35   Q 113 Back

36   Q 601 Back

37   Q 754 Back

38   Q 812 Back

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Prepared 5 August 2007