Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 573 - 579)



  Q573  Chairman: Can I welcome Professor John Brennan, Professor Phillip Brown, Mr Martin Davidson and Professor Bernadette Robinson to our proceedings. It is always a great delight to have such a talented group of witnesses. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and say, what if we were paying the consultancy fee of this lot for two hours, and then it makes more value, even more, the time we have with you. Normally we give people a chance to say something in their own defence before we get started, before we sentence, but that is a humorous way of saying if you want to say a couple of things, to get us started, you can, otherwise we will go straight into questions?

  Professor Brennan: I have jotted down a couple of things, which I will mention, in terms of where I am coming from, on this. One is essentially a comment about globalisation, and perhaps one can argue that globalisation may be more about becoming better aware of differences rather than about removing those differences. In relation to that, I should say that most of my own research focuses on UK higher education in a European context and my comment there is that there are huge differences between the UK HE system and its linkages to the labour market and the linkages in other countries; so I am not sure we are in a process of convergence.

  Q574  Chairman: Are we better linked, or are they?

  Professor Brennan: We are linked rather differently and I think I would summarise it, there has been a lot of indicators, UK graduates appear to find less immediate relevance in their higher education to their employment. The second thing is a comment about international league tables. There has been some interesting work done in Germany which looks at national rankings based on productivity per researcher, as opposed to taking an institutional frame. That is quite interesting because you get a rather different set of league tables if you do it that way; in other words, the broad message from that is that how many top universities a country has might not be, at the end of the day, all that significant, that there is productivity of higher education systems which are not necessarily dependent upon a hierarchical system of individual universities. I thought that was perhaps worth saying. Probably just the other thing to say is that, whilst I recognise that the focus of this afternoon is looking very much at internationalisation, it seems to me that for all universities global, national, regional and local functions interpenetrate each other, so I am not sure that internationalisation can be completely separated from these other levels.

  Q575  Chairman: Thank you for that. Professor Brown?

  Professor Brown: I am from the University of Cardiff. I think one of the things I would like to talk with you about is our understanding of globalisation and the global economy. For the last three years I have been interviewing corporate enterprises, 20 of them in detail, across seven countries. We have had 180 interviews. We have also spoken to senior advisers in China, India, Korea, Singapore, Germany and the US, and on the basis of the evidence that we have collected and the trends I think we have identified then I think I would like to challenge, for example, the Leitch Review's actual title, that is Prosperity for all in the global economy; that assumes a win-win scenario, that there are no losers, and there are losers. The sub-title is World Class Skills; that assumes that the key to this is skills and also I would like to challenge that.

  Q576  Chairman: We will come back to that; that was very interesting, Professor Brown. Martin?

  Mr Davidson: I am ready to answer your questions, Sir, when you want me to.

  Q577  Chairman: You know that the Committee is going to China, and Beijing, and your team have been very helpful in planning our visit and making it worthwhile. Professor Robinson?

  Professor Robinson: Just to say a word on my background, I am fairly ignorant about higher education in Europe. I spend six or seven months of each year in China, working mainly in the west but also in other universities, so I do not come armed with a lot of facts and figures but maybe some perspectives from in-country, in China, and maybe Pakistan and some other countries, about the experience of higher education when students come here to participate in it. I come from Nottingham University, which has the largest number of Chinese students in the UK and which also has over 90 research projects ongoing with China at present: a lot of connections there with China for our university.

  Q578  Chairman: Can we start the questioning then. Is it not a fact that if you are looking at the international higher education it is not totally different from any other competitive marketplace product, is it? Surely it is clear that we must retain our high quality, keep our reputation for high quality, if we want to attract students to come here to study, and to make sure that experience they have while they are here, of one year, or three years, or longer, is of the very highest quality. That will bring people back, will it not? Is it not as simple as that; or is it more complex?

  Professor Brown: Obviously, you need to have very high standards of educational quality within the UK to compete internationally. The issue is, however, what others are doing, instead of what we are doing, and are we all doing exactly the same thing, in which case where is our competitive advantage. I think the second question would be do you treat higher education simply as a commodity, how do you understand the idea of the public good, should that be restricted to a region or to a nation, what does that mean within an international context, where is the public good and where is our understanding of higher education there, if we see this purely in terms of yet somewhere else to trade internationally. I am not saying we should be doing that. I think we should and we have to think in those terms, and the reason why we have to think in those terms is because everybody else is. Whether we like it or not, when you talk to those people, as you have, you know much better than I do that they will give you the spin about, "Of course, we see this in `public good' terms," but underlying it is competition, a competition for places and students and research and technologies and we have got to be part of that game. I think there is a broader agenda which we also need to take into account here; if not, we narrow down far too much, I think.

  Q579  Chairman: Could it be bad for British higher education to go too far down this route then; could we be undermining the quality of the product for our own students, who are in the UK and in Europe, by filling too many places with foreign students, for example?

  Professor Brown: I think we could. It goes back to that issue, does it not, of what is the public good, what is the purpose of higher education; is it there primarily for people within the UK, or is it there also for international students. The University of Oxford has been talking about reducing the number of places for home students, needy students, because of the problems of funding; so you have to link the funding issues also alongside these broader questions about the overriding purpose of higher education, I would suggest.

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