Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580
MONDAY 23 APRIL 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.