Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)



  Q580  Chairman: Martin: I am reverting to first names and hope that is alright?

  Mr Davidson: I think it is very important that we understand why international student flows take place, what it is that students are looking for, and the research is very clear on this. 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. I think the other issue which is worth asking at this stage is, given the sheer number of foreign students in British higher education, at the undergraduate level, at the postgraduate level, and indeed the number of foreign lecturers now working in British higher education, is it actually reasonable for us still to regard this as a domestic set of institutions which happen to attract a little bit of overseas international involvement, which is financially beneficial but that is about it? I would suggest that actually the entire market has moved, in much the same way as, say, the bond market, or the insurance market, for the UK is actually an international one; it brings goods within the UK but essentially it is an international one. In some senses, British higher education has moved into that same environment; actually now it is developing a whole set of deliverables, whether they are in terms of course design or the student experience, which are designed for an international market, which of course includes the UK but is no longer limited purely to the UK.

  Q581  Chairman: Martin, if you were in the same profession as the group of people sitting opposite you, you would start to get a bit worried if people in your constituency thought that when their children came to apply to university they could not get a place because "I'm sorry but UK universities have gone international and the university is full of people not from Britain." That is different from other products, is it not?

  Mr Davidson: That is assuming that there is simply a limit on the number of places available.

  Q582  Chairman: Certainly there is a limit on the places in a lot of universities?

  Mr Davidson: There is evidence that the level of university student places does grow to meet the size of the market. I think also it is assuming that the international aspect of education provides no benefit to the British student. Again there is good evidence that the internationalisation of British higher education provides considerable benefits to British students taking part in that education, whether it is through a better understanding of international affairs, a better understanding of other cultures, a better engagement with people from other parts of the world, through to work opportunities and professional opportunities through that wider set of engagements.

  Q583  Chairman: Martin, an awful lot of foreign students come here but not really enough UK students go elsewhere, do they? All this internationalism is fine in theory but we find that there is a poor uptake of overseas places. Even in rather welcoming places like the United States or the Scandinavian and Nordic countries, where English is spoken and a lot of the teaching is in English, still quite a low rate of UK students are taking advantage of the international education experience?

  Mr Davidson: I think it is disappointing, the number of students, for example, who take part in the mobility programmes; we know, for example, that the number of students under the Erasmus scheme has reduced, year-on-year, rather than increased, there is something like a two to one disparity between European students coming into this country on those programmes and British students going overseas. There are a number of reasons for that, and we have undertaken some research, and they are the obvious ones of language but also they are questions about the transferability of credits, the acceptability of credits earned overseas in their courses back here, as well as questions about cost and utility, how useful do students see it who undertake those programmes. I think also there is evidence that there is a growth in the number of students going now to other countries, most particularly the United States, Australia, Canada and other English-speaking countries; part of that, of course, is language but part of it also is the nature of the experience that they are undertaking. For many of them, rather than having university experience, they are undertaking work experience or other forms of international experience as part of that course. Traditionally, the number of students from the UK going into other countries has exceeded other English-speaking countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, as a proportion of the student population; the truth is that probably those countries have caught up with us over the last three to four years.

  Q584  Chairman: Caught up, in what sense?

  Mr Davidson: The proportion of students going overseas for study, and it remains an issue for us in this country, I agree.

  Q585  Chairman: John Brennan, do students go because we have got first-class universities in the UK and other universities, many in Europe, are not very good?

  Professor Brennan: I think probably there are different reasons for different patterns of mobility. Focusing just on Erasmus for a moment, I have seen there have been various evaluations of Erasmus programmes and I think there is some suggestion that UK universities give less encouragement to home students to go abroad than is the case in other European countries. Also there may be factors to do with the brevity of the degree courses in the UK compared with their European counterparts; there is just not a lot of time to fit things in. Whereas, if you have got first-degree experience, which can go from anything, from four, five, six and seven years, then there is more possibility of including a year abroad in that.

  Q586  Chairman: We thought steadily the whole Bologna Process was bringing it all down to standard, three-year degrees; it is not happening?

  Professor Brennan: What I hear, from within those European countries that I am spending my time visiting, which is quite a few of them, is that, whilst the formal, two-stage structure is being implemented, the view within universities and also employers was that there was considerable doubt about the extent to which the first-stage Bachelor's qualification will be an acceptable entry to the labour market. Those of us who can think back to Dip HE of many years ago; in other words, the Bachelor's degree will be there but it will be used as a staging-post on the way to the Master's degree, and that the reality may change but it seems likely to be a very long time in changing.

  Chairman: Thank you for those first answers. Rob Wilson will lead us on.

  Q587  Mr Wilson: If I could follow up on some of your questioning, Chairman, with just an overall question on the international research market, very quickly; do you detect that there is any brain drain within the British system of academics abroad?

  Professor Brown: I do not have detailed knowledge of it but I would say, certainly in the social sciences, not particularly. Just thinking of people out there I would know of, who are regarded as leading figures, they have not gone to the US. I think there is even some discussion now in the US about talent leaving the US, but I think the politics of the US also is an issue for people now and would you really want to go and work for the US, because the US is the number one destination for British academics. I do not think that is the case and I think also we are beginning to recruit more from the US and elsewhere, because we are struggling to recruit sufficient academics, so we are having to look internationally now for various people, but I do not know the detailed figure.

  Mr Davidson: I think that there is evidence of brain gain rather than brain drain. The number of foreign academics working in British institutions, I do not think anybody has an exact figure but probably it is something like 15%. I think that the evidence, again which is anecdotal rather than carefully researched, is that a number of British academics, if they go overseas, tend to go early and come back, rather than being a permanent loss.

  Mr Wilson: Brain gain, not brain drain. I will have to write that down. Can I turn to students, and how healthy do you think the market is, the international fee-paying student coming to the UK at the moment?

  Q588  Chairman: What about Bernadette; she has got a lot of experience in China and other places?

  Professor Robinson: I think the market is healthy at the moment but I am not sure it is going to stay that way. I think there are risky aspects to it. I am thinking particularly of the Master's level programme. The Master's level in the UK has the competitive advantage that it is short, but increasingly it is regarded with suspicion because the entry and exit levels are perceived as lower than other countries; so now the first choice in China for a Master's degree is not the UK generally but it is the US, because it is seen to have more value in the marketplace. I think part of this is to do with the length but part of it also is to do with the mismatch of perceptions of students coming, especially from China; they come and they expect to be taught, and that is not how Master's level programmes operate in the UK. Somehow the idea gets fixed that you can get a Master's degree in the UK, you have to go to maybe only five classes a week, not understanding the intensive study for the rest of the time that is needed. I hear a lot of conversation about where to go for Master's degrees and the USA now is the first choice for many of the Chinese colleagues I work with and for their students.

  Q589  Chairman: They are not the sort of students we want, are they?

  Professor Robinson: I think they are the sort of students you want; they are intelligent, highly motivated.

  Q590  Chairman: Are they? Do they not want to be force-fed tit-bits, forced down their throat?

  Professor Robinson: No; they are the ones who are the most able, the most ambitious, the most willing to work their socks off.

  Q591  Mr Wilson: I was chatting to a vice chancellor the other day who said that the UK had become quite an unfriendly country towards overseas students, in many respects. Do any of you sympathise with that view and what do you think is the basis of that view?

  Professor Robinson: I think some of it is to do with mismatch of cultural expectations and not enough attention being paid to this when the students come here. I know many universities have officers who look after overseas students' welfare, etc., but it is a complaint we hear from UK students as well, that, our Master's programmes, or PhD programmes even, it is quite hard to get hold of your tutor. Tutors are very busy. The workload of academics is just crazy and they do not have time and are pressured to do research and it is very difficult to find time for students. They are coming from cultures where it operates differently so their expectations about access to tutors and their teachers at universities are different, and so they feel very much adrift. I think that is one reason why sometimes undergraduate students, from Asian countries in particular, find it difficult to get comfortable and get established on their degree programmes and do better on Master's programmes later on, when they have matured a bit and got some experience of independent learning.

  Q592  Mr Wilson: Addressing this to Martin, do you think that whole episode of British foreign policy, the Iraq war and all the things around that and the restrictions that brought upon overseas students coming to some universities, from some parts of the world, whether that has given a very unfriendly feel to Britain and British universities?

  Mr Davidson: I think there is very good evidence, from a number of surveys that we and other organisations have done, that individuals overseas, presumably you are referring particularly to students from Islamic, Muslim countries, are able to distinguish between the views and actions of the British Government and of the UK more generally. I do not think there is any question that many aspects of our society remain extremely attractive; in particular, the education. While I do not think there is any question that a decision to study overseas and a decision to study in which country is an emotional one and will be affected in part by an emotional environment, I do not think there is strong evidence that particularly the foreign policy has had a huge impact. What has had more impact perhaps is the perception of safety. Certainly it is true that for a large number of countries, most particularly China but also other countries, safety of the student while overseas is of paramount concern. For example, the bombings in London last year will have had an effect, but it will be, I would suggest, a rather marginal one. A much bigger issue of how friendly our education is seen is actually things like the visa regime and the visa regime has a very, very marked impact, and even if it is by reputation, rather than by reality, an unfriendly visa regime, without question, does have an impact on students' willingness to come here.

  Q593  Mr Wilson: Have we got an unfriendly visa regime?

  Mr Davidson: The reputation was poor about a year or 18 months ago and I think it has improved in a number of ways. I think that the Home Office setting up the Joint Visa Task Force, for example, has helped, it has given the sector an opportunity to contribute to the discussions around it. I think things like the new international graduate student scheme here, which provides opportunities for students to study for a year after graduation, is going to be a very important aspect in providing a rather friendlier environment for students coming here.

  Q594  Mr Wilson: Bernadette, you seemed to be agreeing more with the premise than the question when I pitched it. Do you agree with what Martin has just said?

  Professor Robinson: Very much. I think the visa issue has been an important one for some students, who have chosen not to come for that reason.

  Q595  Mr Wilson: Have we seen a fall-off in students from, say, Muslim countries that you have noticed in the last couple of years?

  Mr Davidson: I am not aware, off the top of my head, of there having been a marked fall-off. There has been a drop in individual countries, so China showed quite a large fall-off two years ago, but the overall number of students has stayed roughly level over the period.

  Q596  Mr Wilson: The other point this vice chancellor made to me, when we were discussing this, was that many institutions are becoming heavily reliant on the fee income from overseas students; too much so, in many respects. Would anybody like to comment on that?

  Professor Brennan: Just to endorse that perception; we know of several universities which, even at the undergraduate level, have got now something in the order of 40% of undergraduates from China, and that seems a very high proportion.

  Q597  Chairman: Where have they got that percentage?

  Professor Brennan: Several universities that I am aware of.

  Q598  Chairman: Right across the piece, not for any department; in the whole university 40% are from China?

  Professor Brennan: Yes.

  Q599  Mr Wilson: Does that shock you, that there are so many from one particular country?

  Professor Brennan: Yes.

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