Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the British Council


  The British Council has six loci in submitting this evidence. It:

    —  leads on implementation of the second phase of the Prime Minister's Initiative (PMI2), (in partnership with DfES, and the UK education sector) along with the UK/India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) and the British Degrees in Russia (BRIDGE) programme.

    —  it works with partners from the UK higher education sector on HE reform projects around the world (eg, China, Japan, Middle East, Africa, Latin America) .

    —  has strong relationships with the higher education sector through the Education UK Partnership.

  The British Council also administers:

    —  Comenius, Lingua, Grundtvig and Minerva actions of the European Union's Socrates programme within the UK, and will be responsible for Erasmus;.

    —  the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE) programme and the new DFID higher education links programme, Development Partnerships in Higher Education (DELPHE); the England Africa Partnerships; the Bond scheme on business placements; and.

    —  a range of international scholarship programmes, including the Chevening programme on behalf of the FCO.

  This submission is confined to the international dimensions of the Committee's terms of reference, except where a broader perspective is necessary to provide context. It takes as given, rather than specifically addresses, the globalisation of higher education as these trends are widely documented.


    —  UK degrees are highly valued by international students for their global recognition. International students adopt an essentially utilitarian view of higher education which is likely to increasingly involve consideration of value for money, including opting for programmes at least partly delivered offshore.

    —  Higher education plays an important role in UK's cultural and diplomatic relations with other countries, and it should prepare UK students to be active global citizens (paragraphs 6, 7). Higher education is a major factor in making the UK an internationally competitive world-class knowledge economy, and is crucial in attracting creative and innovative talent to this country. Higher Education also plays a very significant role in the UK's cultural and diplomatic relationships with other countries.

    —  A stable and internationally competitive higher education sector should be a prime objective of Government policy. The UK is a successful but high cost provider of international education, which, if competitiveness is to be retained, may need to improve student satisfaction in terms of value for money. The evidence suggests that the UK is competitive in attracting high calibre international staff (paragraphs 8-11).

    —  With increased competition, it is likely that the UK will lose market dominance over the longer term. Some HEIs will need to take urgent action to balance their books if there is a downturn in demand. There is a greater risk to the viability of individual departments, particularly at postgraduate research level (paragraphs 12-17).

    —  For these reasons, it is important that the Prime Minister's Initiative on international education continues to receive stable funding from the various partners involved. As the competition intensifies, it is absolutely critical that we significantly increase our marketing activity while at the same time building stronger foundations through sustainable relationships with overseas education institutions and governments. PMI 2—the second-phase initiative launched in Spring 2006—provides for £6.9 million pa over two years for these activities. The PMI is, however, a five-year initiative and consistency of funding up to 2010-11 will be essential if the initiative is to meet its objectives successfully.

    —  The current differential (even after the partial deregulation of fees) between what an HEI receives for teaching a home/EU student and the tuition fee paid by other overseas students is difficult to justify and may have distorted HEI's recruitment and admissions' policies (paragraphs 18-20).

    —  The balance between postgraduate and undergraduate international student numbers is driven by the competitive advantage of the UK's one-year Master's, but this adds a degree of instability to the system because the students have to be replaced annually rather than on a three-year cycle (paragraphs 21-23).

    —  It is difficult to manage the postgraduate market, but it is in the own interests of HEIs to manage admissions to programmes to avoid student dissatisfaction with programmes made up largely of overseas students (paragraphs 24, 25).

    —  The Bologna Process should increase the pool of candidates qualified to enrol in postgraduate education in the UK, but there is a danger that one-year Master's programmes might be perceived as not of the same standard as longer programmes on the continent (paragraphs 27-29).

    —  It is unlikely that the development of the European Higher Education Framework and the European Credit transfer System (ECTS) will significantly increase outward student mobility from the UK which is constrained more by linguistic ability and financial concerns (paragraph 31).

    —  While there is a case for UK HEIs to look more towards Europe, it is difficult at this stage to judge the likely impact of the European Higher Education Area on recruitment to UK universities (paragraphs 32, 33).


What do students want and what should the student experience involve?

  1.  Students want to receive a high quality education which enables them both to realise their full potential and to develop knowledge and skills which equip them for employment in an increasingly global market place, including the learning skills to facilitate changing occupations during their lifetime. As tuition fees increase, value for money will become an increasingly important factor in students' assessment of their higher education experience.

  2.  International students want the international status which a degree from a UK HEI bestows on them. UK degrees are seen as having wide global recognition and are highly valued as a route to graduate employment. An added advantage is the expectation that students' command of the English language will improve as a consequence of studying and being immersed in UK society. However, students from some of the key sender countries (in particular China) are increasingly seeking the ability to add work experience to their educational qualifications overseas. International students are increasingly placing a high priority on obtaining work experience in the UK—either during or after their degrees. While schemes such as SEGS and Fresh Talent go some way to achieving this, relevant work experience is still difficult to obtain.

  3.  The high cost of UK degrees leads many students to want a degree of flexibility in provision, so that they can study at least part of a UK degree programme in their own country. Overseas governments often encourage entry from foreign providers as a partial solution to capacity constraints, to reduce the capital outflows and limit the brain drain. Flexible delivery, often referred to as Trans-national Education (TNE) in an international context, has become increasingly important as UK HEIs have grown international teaching links and partnerships integrating open and distance learning, e-delivery, and face to face programmes. There are an estimated 220,000 international students following UK higher education programmes delivered overseas, and the numbers may overtake those attending programmes in the UK by 2010. These innovative partnerships present new challenges, particularly around the maintenance of quality and standards, but potentially have significant long term benefits.

What should the Government, and society more generally, want from higher education: a stable, internationally competitive HE sector?

  4.  Higher education should play a vital role in educating UK students, not just as active UK citizens but as active global citizens. HEIs should produce UK graduates appropriate for a high skill global economy. It is in the interest of all students that, whatever their origin, they mix as equals on campus in an open and questioning environment. More than this, higher education should look at ways of "internationalising"" its home students, for example through the curriculum or through outward mobility. While this has resource implications, it is our view that internationalisation would benefit the UK's future prosperity and position in the world as well as improve the prospects of the next generation of students.

  5.  Higher education has the potential to make a major contribution to the Government's international strategic priorities. It plays a very significant role in the UK's cultural and diplomatic relationships with other countries, a role which can only increase as the UK seeks new forms of engagement with countries across the world. In addition to the education of international students, partnerships in research and teaching are becoming increasingly important as a vehicle of UK engagement. The higher education sector plays an important role in the building internationally of the reputation of, and links for, UK's global economy.

  6.  The maintenance of a stable and internationally competitive HE sector in a globalised world should be a prime objective of Government policy. Besides acting as a leading source of wealth generation within the country, an internationally competitive HE sector:

    —  contributes over £4 billion in export earnings, of which nearly £3.5 billion is accounted for by change to UK HEIs (Johnes, 2004);.

    —  is in demand by international students who maintain a loyalty to the UK and are likely to "buy British" through the rest of their business lives; and who.

    —  contribute more than UK and EU students to the cost of their tuition.

  7.  It is important to recognise the risks in maintaining an internationally competitive sector with present levels of public funding. The UK is on average the second most expensive study destination for international students after private universities in the United States.

Table 1


Total cost of degree

USA Private
United Kingdom
USA Public

  (Source: Australian Education International, 2006).

  8.  Many studies (most recently Hobsons' Global Recruitment Review [2006] which undertook an on-line survey of 28,000 students from more than 50 countries) demonstrate that students perceive the UK alongside the USA as providing the highest quality education. The danger is that the more difficult it becomes for these students to attain their ultimate career goal, the more the value of a UK education will be questioned. Respondents to a recent Council for International Education survey (UKCOSA, 2004) suggested 87% of international students were satisfied or very satisfied with their course, although the ratings were slightly higher among undergraduates (91%) than amongst postgraduates (85%). The implications for the UK are that as competition increases with many more affordable options available, the UK must be able to demonstrate value for money both in terms of quality as well as employability.

  9.  The ability to attract staff internationally is another important indicator of international competitiveness. In this respect, despite talk of a "brain drain", there appears less cause for concern (Bekhradnia and Sastry 2005). Over the period 1995-96 to 2002-03 there was substantial net immigration—on average about 1.4 academics arrived for every one who left. The UK tends to lose people in the early stages of their career, but attracts more people than it loses at later stages in their careers when they have built up a research reputation.


Are some parts of the sector too reliant on income from overseas students?

  10.  Over 14% of the student population in UK HEIs are domiciled outside the UK, with a greater concentration amongst postgraduates and particularly research postgraduates, 4 out of 10 of who are from overseas. By way of contrast, international students comprise only 4% of the student population in American universities, but 13% of postgraduates.

Table 2


Rest EU


  (Source: HESA Student Record, 2006).

  11.  Growth in the recent past internationally has been very considerable, with a 41% increase over the period 2000-04. Currently 2.7 million students study outside their home country, with more than half choosing USA, UK, France or Germany (OECD, 2006). A British Council study published in conjunction with IDP Australia in 2003 predicted that, even with a relatively conservative scenario, the number of students studying abroad will continue to increase.

  12.  Against this optimistic picture, the past two years have seen a significant turning point in terms of the global market for education:

    —  The global expansion of higher education means that there is more choice for students to stay at home to study—particularly at undergraduate level. In 2005, China was building universities at the rate of one per week.

    —  There has been a significant increase in competition for international students. USA and Australia have been increasing their investment in international education and developing national initiatives. Australia's international student recruitment measures are underpinned by £48 million over four years. The USA's international education budget for 2006 totals $431.8 million, $71 million more than in 2005.

    —  Other countries are developing strategies to become international education hubs and to attract international students. Singapore has 18 international campuses (mainly US and Australia), which have been created over a three year period.

    —  Half of non-EU international students come from just five countries (China, which accounts for almost a quarter, USA, India, Malaysia and Hong Kong in that order), which makes the UK very susceptible to a downturn in one or more of its major markets.

  These significant changes mean that if the Prime Minister's Intiative is to be successful, there needs to be certainty of continued and adequate funding. As the competition intensifies, it is absolutely critical that we significantly increase our marketing activity. This needs to be supported by positioning the UK at the centre of the international education market through building sustainable relationships with overseas education institutions and governments. PMI 2 provides funding of £6.9 million per annum for these activities over two years. It is critical that funding for the full five year strategy is safeguarded and guaranteed throughout the lifetime of the initiative. The British Council will make provision for its share of funding of the PMI to be a high priority in its plans for the 08/09 to 10/11 triennium.

  13.  In 2003-04, fees from non-EU students accounted for 8.1% of the income of English HEIs, a slightly higher proportion on average than their research income. Sastry (2006) has shown that LSE (33.5%) and SOAS (31.9%) earn about one-third of their income from non-EU students, and a further 18 receive more than one-eighth. The small surpluses of most of these HEIs would be wiped out if their fee income were to drop by 25% which would necessitate immediate action to offset the loss of revenue.

  14.  While HEIs, particularly those predicting unrealistic increases in overseas participation, might be financially embarrassed by a downturn, the larger risk of an over-reliance on overseas students lies at subject level. International students comprise more than half of the research student population in six broad subject areas.

Table 3


Engineering & technology
Business & administrative studies
Architecture, building & planning
Computer science
Social studies

  (Source: analysis of HESA Student Record, 2006).

  15.  Some disciplines have a much higher exposure: for example, international students account for 63% of the research student body in Electric and Electronic Engineering and in Architecture, 74% in Finance and 78% in Accounting. As these are national averages, individual departments will be even more susceptible to a sudden downturn.


  16.  It is not part of the British Council's role to express an opinion on the principles or methodology of funding higher education. However, it is in a position to comment on issues which arise from the current funding regime, which should inform debate about future policy.

  17.  The very substantial increase in overseas student numbers over the last twenty years can be considered to be a great British (and British Council) success story. However, it is arguable that the recruitment and admissions policies of HEIs have been distorted by the gap between the total income they receive for a home/EU undergraduate (in fee income and HEFCE support) and the fee income from an international student, allied with the premium price that overseas student are prepared to pay for a UK education at all levels. This undergraduate differential has been reduced with the partial deregulation of fees for students commencing their studies in 2006, but it remains substantial (Table 4).

Table 4


2nd/3rd yr
1st yr
95th %ile

Arts/social science student
Science student

  (Sources: HEFCE, 2006 and Universities UK, 2006).

  *Note 1:  For the 93% of HEIs which are charging the maximum £3,000.

  18.  The range of undergraduate fees charged to overseas students (UniversitiesUK, 2006), after the current level of HEFCE support is taken into account, might be considered indicative of the fees which would be charged to home/EU students should fees be totally deregulated. While this would address the issue of differential pricing, it is difficult to see how leading institutions, lacking significant endowment income, could operate "needs blind" admissions policies without cross subsidising between students on the basis of ability to pay.


Is there clear intention behind the balance of post-graduate and undergraduate international students being sought?

  19.  The present balance is the consequence of market forces. The relative demand for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes is largely driven by value for money. Most countries in the developed and developing world have expanded their capacity to educate undergraduate students. It makes economic sense for students to undertake their undergraduate study (which on average takes three to four years) in their own country, or a country which is cheaper than the UK, and then to study for a one (calendar) year taught Master's degree in the UK. The UK has a competitive advantage in that these programmes are at least six months shorter than in competitor countries.

  20.  Taught postgraduate enrolments by EU and other international students increased by 120% between 1996-97 and 2004-05 (compared with a 36% increase in first degree enrolments and 44% in research degree registrations). The distribution of international students in the UK by level in 2004-05 is shown in Table 5: nearly as many international students are now studying taught postgraduate programmes as are reading for first degrees.

Table 5


Level of study
Non EU

Postgraduate research
Postgraduate taught
First degree
Other undergraduate

  (Source: HESA Student Record, 2006).

  21.  This changing balance of take-up of one year programmes compared with three year programmes is putting pressure on UK institutions, which have to increase the number of students they recruit each year to maintain their enrolment levels. HEIs have to recruit 188,000 students each year to maintain the current international student population of 344,000 students. This in turn makes them more vulnerable to sudden downturns in demand (paragraphs 15-17).

Is this balance an area where the market should be managed? Can it be managed?

  22.  It is in the long-term interests of HEIs to manage admissions to their taught postgraduate programmes to ensure that they do not have overly-high levels of representation of international students within their overall student body. The UKCOSA survey (paragraph 10) suggests that there is a correlation between integration with UK students and satisfaction with value for money. There is a real danger that the domination of degree programmes, particularly Master's programmes, by international students (and frequently by students from a small number of origins) will have an impact on student satisfaction.

  23.  This would otherwise be difficult to manage. International student scholarships might be redistributed in favour of longer programmes both in individual HEIs and nationally (the Chevening Scholarships, for example, are generally awarded for at most one year), but this would make a minimal impact given the number of scholars to total enrolees.


  24.  The British Council believes the Bologna Process provides a framework to encourage the convergence of higher education systems in Europe as an important component of the internationalisation of higher education.

Advantages and disadvantages

  25.  The framework founded on three cycles (levels) of degree based on learning outcomes should increase the transparency of European degrees and facilitate students moving between national education systems as they progress through the cycles. This is complemented by the determination of many European governments, particularly in the east, to use the Bologna Process as a tool to improve the quality of their higher education systems. Given the long-standing propensity of continental European students to look to the UK for part of their education, this should serve to increase the number of suitably qualified applicants to UK universities at postgraduate level.

  26.  The most significant threat is to UK Master's programmes, which the country is heavily reliant on for its competitive advantage in attracting international students (paragraph 22). The agreement at the Helsinki Conference in 2003 that a Masters degree should have a minimum of 60 ECTS credits (the equivalent of an academic year) at Master's level is positive in this respect, but it is difficult to envisage how integrated Master's degrees, which do not differentiate between the first and second cycle, could be considered to comply with the framework. The absence of machinery for enforcement and interpretation enables countries to adopt their own approaches to achieving Bologna objectives. However, it also means there is no possibility of a ruling that the learning outcomes of UK Masters programmes are equal to those in other countries of longer duration.

  27.  In these circumstances, a perception that, as other European countries move towards 3+2 year or 4+1 year route to a second-cycle qualification, UK Master's degrees were not of the same standard could significantly harm UK HEIs. It could be particularly severe if it led to professional degrees not being recognised for purposes of progression to professional qualification in other countries. Debates in the European Parliament in 2005 on the Directive on Recognition of Professional Qualifications highlighted this danger.

  28.  It is also worth noting how Bologna is perceived by our key competitors. Australia held a conference in 2005 to assess the feasibility of an Asia Pacific Education Area. It concluded that this was not possible as the priorities for East Asia are capacity building at this stage. As a result, Australia is considering adoption of the Bologna model in order to continue to be seen as being of high quality and relevant to international standards and requirements. This demonstrates how key competitors see Bologna as a source of competitive advantage for Europe.

Opportunities to enhance the mobility of students from the UK

  29.  The low, and declining, outward mobility of UK students is a cause for concern in an increasingly global age. However, it is unlikely that the implementation of the Bologna Process will impact greatly on this. A report (HEFCE, 2004), International Student Mobility, commissioned by the British Council and nine other national organisations, suggested that reluctance to study abroad in Europe was largely attributable to poor language skills and financial constraints; a minority of interviewees suggested that credit transfer at an appropriate academic level (which Bologna would address) was a major concern. The Steering Group which guided the study made a number of recommendations for various parties—including the Government, HEIs, the funding councils and national organisations to consider in an attempt to increase participation.

The broader impact of Bologna across Europe

  30.  It is difficult at this stage to judge the likely impact on the UK if the ambition to develop the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) as a brand is realised. Arguably, as the major provider of international higher education in Europe, the UK stands to lose market share as other countries in EHEA take advantage of increased visibility, particularly as many countries are now offering postgraduate degrees through the medium of English. On the other hand, the higher visibility of Europe, allied with HEIs grasping opportunities to offer degree programmes in conjunction with European partners, might persuade students to forsake other traditional English-speaking markets, such as USA and Canada, in favour of the UK.

  31.  There has been a tendency for HEIs, (students from Europe are not counted in PMI2 targets despite the benefits they bring), to look at EU students as poor relations in the scramble to recruit high-fee students. In the British Council's view this is not entirely sensible. There are significant advantages in being more closely immersed in EHEA, not least a large pool of well-trained scientists and technologists.


  Australian Education International (2006). The International Education Market in Thailand, A Research Report commissioned by Australian Education International.

  Bekhradnia, B and T Sastry (2005), Brain Drain: Migration of Academic Staff to and from the UK, Higher Education Policy Institute Report 17, Oxford.

  Bekhradnia, B, C Whithall and T Sastry (2006), The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities, Higher Education Policy Institute Report 27, Oxford .

  Johnes, G (2004), The Global Value of Education and Training Exports to the UK Economy, British Council, London.

  HEFCE (2004), International Student Mobility, Higher Education Funding Council for England, Issues paper 30 (web only).

  HEFCE (2006), Funding higher education in England; how HEFCE allocates its funds, Higher Education Funding Council for England Report 17, Bristol.

  HESA (2006) Students in Higher Education Institutions 2004-05, Higher Education Statistics Agency, Cheltenham .

  Hobsons (2006) "Global Recruitment Review", paper presented at Going Global Conference, Edinburgh.

  OECD (2006), Education at a Glance, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Washington.

  Sastry (2006), How exposed are English universities to reductions in demand from international students? Higher Education Policy Institute Report 22, Oxford .

  UKCOSA (2004), Broadening Our Horizons: International Students in UK Universities and Colleges, UKCOSA, London.

UniversitiesUK (2006), Survey of Tuition Fees for International students, 2006-07, UniversitiesUK (web only).

December 2006.

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