Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)



  Q600  Chairman: Can you think of any particular ones which come to mind which have that percentage?

  Professor Brennan: Two. One I think is the University of Luton and I think the University of Glamorgan has got a high proportion, but it may not be that amount.[2]

  Q601  Mr Wilson: Do you have a feeling of what the level should be of overseas students at a university; is there a right level and a wrong level?

  Professor Brennan: I do not think I would come up with a particular level, but I would come up with a view that an international experience should involve interaction and integration with home students, and where within universities there is almost kind of a particular ghetto of certain courses, with students from another part of the world, I wonder about the quality of that experience as an international experience.

  Mr Davidson: I would like to pick up that point about the impact of a very large proportion of foreign students on a particular course. I think 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.

  Q602  Mr Wilson: At the moment, I suppose overseas students are the goose laying the golden egg. Do we have a realistic expectation of that continuing, or do we think that might change over time?

  Mr Davidson: The research that we have undertaken—we undertook some research with IDP and with other institutions two years ago—indicated that there would be a continuing growth in international student mobility. The issue for the UK is about our market share. At the moment, we have about a 24% market share of the student flows. I do not think there is any question that we would be able to maintain that so well; the overall number may grow but the proportion coming to the UK, as opposed to other countries, is likely to decrease. There has been a very, very sharp increase in the flows to new countries, so countries like Malaysia, Singapore, China all have student recruitment targets set by governments. China has something like 110,000 foreign students studying there now, from a base of virtually nil two or three years ago; so the competition for foreign student flows is very marked. I think the other big shift in the market, which we see coming in, is a shift away from students travelling to other countries purely for education and looking for a much more mixed education environment, including some period of study in their own country, maybe followed up by study overseas, or indeed wholly-owned study within their own country but given through some mix of curriculum from a foreign university as well as a home university. The whole environment is becoming a much more complex one, though the overall scale, the overall shift, of students around the world is set to increase.

  Q603  Mr Wilson: I have finished my questions but if we could have the figures for the Muslim countries that would be very helpful?

  Mr Davidson: Yes. I have figures with absolute numbers. I do not have figures for change over time, but I can write to the Committee with this.[3]

  Mr Wilson: Thank you.

  Q604  Mr Pelling: Just to follow up on Rob Wilson's line of questioning, my understanding of how we work competitively, as it were, against the US, in terms of the quality and ease of visa applications, is probably about two years out of date. How are we standing vis-a"-vis the US? My understanding is that the US recognised that there were some very real problems, in terms of the visa process for foreign students; could they be regarded now as being more customer-friendly than we are?

  Mr Davidson: I would say that, yes, without doubt, the US has learned a very sharp lesson and is applying itself very assiduously to increasing student numbers. Virtually all our major competitor countries have put substantial sums of money into marketing themselves overseas and that includes establishing advisory centres, establishing new scholarship schemes and, most particularly, looking at their visa regimes in the US. While the US, like the UK, is seeing a drop in its market share, it is putting substantial sums of money, about US$400 million a year, into trying to rebuild that.

  Professor Robinson: I think Australia is seen as very visa-friendly to Asian students.

  Q605  Chairman: We went to Australia. It is no wonder that they get students, they give permanent residence to people who take a course there. It is mixed in with a migration policy. Surely, that is not part of international competition; it is a different agenda, is it not, with the Australian Government? Bernadette, you said it as though they are much better than us; come on, it is not the same thing at all?

  Professor Robinson: It may be a different agenda for the Australian Government but it is the perception of the students applying for the visa, and most of them that I know of come back.

  Q606  Chairman: I have to say that most developed countries would be perceived as very friendly if they said "If you come in and study you can stay;" that is overfriendly, is it not?

  Professor Robinson: Yes, but I do not think that is always the intention of the students who go.

  Chairman: Fiona; you know about this.

  Q607  Fiona Mactaggart: Bernadette, of the people in front of us, I think, it sounds to me, probably you have spent more time speaking to students overseas. How important actually are the prospects of migration and future work to students, in thinking about where they may study overseas?

  Professor Robinson: I think, from the perspective of China, many of the students there, as well as getting their qualification, want to get some work experience and many I know in the UK have been here for a few years working but intend to go back to China at some point. The work experience is a very important part of their motivation in coming to the UK to do a qualification, but also they have intentions about going back. For new graduates, I think the job market has changed in China. Before, until quite recently, if you had a foreign degree you were assured of a job straightaway when you returned to China; that is no longer the case, partly because more graduates are coming out of Chinese universities, with the expansion of higher education, and the job market itself has changed.

  Q608  Fiona Mactaggart: John, your paper suggested that we have quite a short degree and then there is more training in employment. Do you think that connects with this point, and therefore the work after, that now we have got a visa regime which allows students to stay and do related work a year after; do you think that is significant in making the UK an interesting place or an attractive place to study, because of the fact that we do not have so much vocational training in our degree courses and various other places?

  Professor Brennan: Again, in terms of the European comparisons, I think that analysis makes a lot of sense because the more general the academic programmes the more portable they are. If I may, I would add the point to this in terms of different stages of mobility, so whilst we were talking earlier about UK students being less likely to study or work abroad on Erasmus programmes we have been doing some recent research which does demonstrate that, but when one looks at work and study abroad after the conclusion of the first degree the UK figure is actually at the European average of 21%, which I think is quite high. In terms of that working abroad being long stay, in other words, for a year or more, the UK figure is actually higher than the European average. In terms of looking at student flows, I think there is quite a lot of different levels in looking at it, and it is not just during the course, it is after the course, there are issues of duration, do you come back again or not come back again, and I think it makes analysis quite complex, in that form.

  Professor Brown: There is another term which has been introduced now, which is brain circulation, which is different from brain drain. The brain drain notion was where you went from India and China into, for example, the US or Britain and you stayed there, and so that talent was lost to India and China. Especially with the Indian experience, there is now this idea of brain circulation, that it is kind of okay for people to go overseas to get their education because ultimately they are going to go back and add value to their national economy; so I think probably you will hear quite a lot about brain circulation, in terms of globalisation debates. How realistic that is, of course, is another question altogether, but what we do know is that more people, for example, from India, are returning to India, and as the job market improves in India and China, certainly certain parts of it, then you will get movement back, but still many stay on, if they can, in Europe or in North America because the jobs are better, the pay is better.

  Q609  Fiona Mactaggart: I am also interested in the different models of study. Bernadette, your institution has a campus in China; and, Martin, in your evidence, the British Council predicted that by 2010 that might be a more common model than students coming here. I want to know what are the risks in terms of that for the British higher education product; is it good, is it the quality that we need? What are the guarantees that those kinds of overseas satellites can be good enough; what are the risks, in terms of them just being adopted as Chinese institutions or similar, and are people good at doing this? Is this a good model for the student?

  Professor Robinson: I would like to start a stage further back, if I may, in answering this. I think there are three main ways in which the internationalisation of higher education can be turned into action, can be operationalised. One is by recruiting students to come to the UK, which is the very common one, which has been happening now for some years. Another one is through transnational courses of different kinds, distance education, different combinations of distance education and in-country. Then there is this model of locating your institution or locating your programmes in-country, with a special status, not just an offshore operation, which has been used by the USA and Canada and various countries and Australia. I think there are three models, but in the UK I think we have had the dominance of this first model, of students coming here always to do courses. I think that in the future, over the next 10 years, there has to be exploration of different models, there has to be development of different models to counteract the changes that are happening and also maybe different flows and surges of numbers coming into recruitment in the UK and other models. The University of Nottingham has two campuses; it has one in Malaysia and one in China, the first foreign university in China, the first Sino-foreign university, and I think the motivations of those three different models are different. The idea of students coming here is to generate income for universities. I think the Nottingham Ningbo model is a `not for profit' model but for different reasons. I think the future of the internationalisation of higher education, certainly with some countries, like China and India, rests really on the development of relationships, that is the thing which is going to sustain flows of students, which is going to generate research interaction and develop relationships into new models which we have not thought of yet. I do not think I have answered your question, but that is the kind of context.

  Chairman: It was a very interesting answer anyway.

  Q610  Fiona Mactaggart: Were you going to say something about your prediction on numbers, Martin?

  Mr Davidson: Just a couple of things, quickly. I think that the model of a transfer or creation of a home campus overseas is unlikely to be a major form of transnational education in the future. I think that the other models, of courses, shared courses, joint curriculum development, are more likely, the nature of the transfer that we have been talking about. All of these, of course, lead to substantial issues around quality. I hasten to add, I have no comments whatsoever about the quality of the Nottingham offering in China and Malaysia, but it is a very substantial challenge to the reputation of British education to maintain quality through offshore delivery, particularly at the individual course level rather than the whole institution level. Maybe that is a challenge which we have to face up to. I would challenge a little bit Bernadette's assertion that the major focus of inward flows of students is financial; of course finance is an important aspect of it but actually it does have a number of other, very substantial, additional benefits to British higher education. I think there is a third aspect of British higher education's international agenda, which is about education reform and development in other countries. It is one of the aspects which are of really very considerable importance in our work, British institutions' willingness to work with foreign institutions on capacity-building, institutional development, as well as at a whole system level of looking at higher education system development in emerging countries. Student flows, creation of courses overseas and engagement with the education system overseas are all aspects of British higher education.

  Professor Robinson: I was not suggesting that money was the only motivation, but for some institutions I think it is the primary motivation. Of course, there are all these other reasons why we need to recruit students from other countries, as Martin has said. I think I am not advocating the model of Ningbo as the ideal; what I am saying is that it is at one end of a continuum, and along that you have got all sorts of possibilities for combinations, sharing, etc. In the past we have had a lot of franchising but that raises whole issues of quality assurance and quality standards. I think there is scope for exploration of new models but they bring with them their own problems as well.

  Q611  Fiona Mactaggart: One of the things which strike me about the university experience is that traditionally we have associated with universities academic freedom, freedom of thought, a number of things which actually are not necessarily the norm in some of the countries which are sending very large numbers of overseas students. I am wondering whether, when you create an institution like that, those issues become issues in those institutions and whether you are exporting some values, or whether actually you are failing to, I suppose is really the question I want to address. Are students getting the traditional academic freedom, openness of debate, that we associate with British higher education, or not, and if they are how?

  Mr Davidson: Other than agreeing absolutely that one of the huge benefits which flow from students coming to this country is access to the entire value system which underpins higher education, which I think then does go back to their countries of origin, as well as the sets of relationships they create, unquestionably there is an issue which I would suggest is part of the quality debate, whether or not those same values are going to inform the experience that they get in a different system.

  Q612  Fiona Mactaggart: Bernadette, your institution does this kind of thing. I want to know whether you are confident that you are actually delivering that and what the struggles are. I cannot believe there have not been some struggles?

  Professor Robinson: I am not here speaking on behalf of my institution so I must be very careful not to do that, but I can speak from my own experience of teaching in Chinese universities and what staff and I can or cannot do in our teaching sessions. Of course I can do most things in my teaching sessions, because I am an ignorant foreigner who can make all sorts of mistakes; but certainly there are sensitivities around some topics that one has to be careful of and I think there is control. I think the practice of having a Party observer in all teaching sessions is now gone, but nonetheless every university has its Party committee and the deputies of educational institutions are Party officials, so it is not entirely absent, and all students must do an ideology course, so one is working within that cultural framework overseas.

  Q613  Fiona Mactaggart: What do we think that this does for the reputation of British higher education; does anybody else want to comment on that?

  Professor Brennan: I know, a few years ago, a lot of foreign universities were setting up various kinds of shop in South Africa, and British universities, I think, were to the fore there, and of course they were having to satisfy the Quality Assurance Agency of the quality of what they were doing out there, and a year or so on South Africa created its own Higher Education Quality Committee which set about doing its own appraisals of programmes. It started with MBA programmes, and a high proportion of the UK provision effectively lost its franchise. The point here, I think, is that a good quality higher education experience in a UK context may not be actually what is required in a very different culture and context, and there may be certain elements which are in common and certain elements which differ. I do not think there were major problems, I think the UK providers changed fairly rapidly to meet the South African requirements, but I think the question of who should be the ultimate arbiter of quality is quite an interesting one and clearly has implications for the international standing of UK higher education.

  Professor Brown: It depends on the subject area, does it not; if it is engineering then it is not usually a problem, if it is social sciences often it is a big problem. The first thing we do is get our students to—we like using the term—critically assess, evaluate, and what does that mean to a Chinese student; it was a big problem because they want the answer, the correct answer, the one that the lecturer gives them. It is a real challenge to get them to say, "Well, it's okay but there are no actual right and wrong answers here; just look at the evidence and give an assessment of this." That is pretty hard, and within a different cultural environment it is even more difficult, it strikes me; so there are real problems. We could not teach half of our courses in social sciences in Singapore, for instance, because we would be challenging the system and that would not be acceptable; so I think there is a big issue about what it is you are going to teach, where, and maintaining those standards. If we are just chasing money then we have got a big problem, it strikes me.

  Q614  Fiona Mactaggart: Do we have any mechanisms which ensure that people do not go out, exporting British sociology-based courses which say "This is the answer"?

  Mr Davidson: Certainly there are mechanisms in place which look at the quality of British offers overseas, yes. I would be very surprised if those systems would accept a course which said "This is the answer" rather than "This is nature of the critical inquiry approach;" so, yes, there are systems in place. As John said earlier, alluding to the South Africa experience, those systems are pretty vigorous and on the whole do match up when challenged by local systems.

  Fiona Mactaggart: It sounds to me, in terms of quality, when students are coming here, that we have a very strong draw at the really high end of the market, also perhaps at the other end of the market, and that there is an issue in the kind of middle-rank universities about how well they are drawing in and bringing in overseas students here. Is that an issue about reputation, is that an issue about marketing, is that an issue about actually how they welcome students in the institutions? I am not talking about the countrywide level, I am talking of the institutional level. Does anyone know?

  Q615  Chairman: It is a big problem for you, is it not? If you were doing your job properly, which I am sure you are, you should be telling universities which do not come up to scratch or are not competing that your feedback from the big client countries is this and that way; or do you not have that relationship?

  Mr Davidson: Yes, we do have that relationship, and the Education UK Partnership is very much based around learning from each other. Marketing in an international environment is a very complex business and I do not think there is any question that a number of institutions, which have come late to it, have found it quite a bumpy ride; whereas, obviously, there is a large number of institutions which have been involved internationally for a very, very long period of time. The issues which are critical tend to be around overreliance on a single market, overreliance on a particular level of education, and there are problems around, for example, one-year Master's degrees, in that you have to renew that constantly on an annual basis; the undergraduate market, you need to recruit them only once every three years. The other overreliance tends to be in a particular subject area; so an institution which is overreliant on Master's degrees or short courses in a particular subject area, in a particular country, is going to have a very high level of exposure. I think that there are issues about some institutions which have allowed themselves to get into that particular position. The sector as a whole, I think, absolutely does see the dangers to reputation of any part of it being seen to be too intent on simply recruiting students at any cost; so I think that the peer pressure around quality and ensuring quality, both in the recruitment process and the student experience, has grown very considerably over the last few years.

  Q616  Chairman: Professor Brennan, I am getting a bit worried about some of your points because you seem to have a rather low opinion of British universities; is not that right? You thought we were overvaluing ourselves and that really we were not much cop, compared with our competitors, if we looked at the true stats: really is that what you thought?

  Professor Brennan: No; no, not at all.

  Q617  Chairman: It may be the truth. We like hearing from the OU, because you have not got that kind of institutional, long-term prejudice which sometimes we get from some institutions; so tell us how it is, from your view?

  Professor Brennan: I think, to some extent, sometimes we assume that there is a particular Anglo-Saxon model which could be applicable everywhere and others would follow. I think what I would say is that there are a number of models; within the European context, higher education in the UK is relatively short-cycle, comparatively.

  Q618  Chairman: Because it is output-based in that time?

  Professor Brennan: Yes. I was going to say, that is not necessarily a criticism, but what I think it does suggest is that there is perhaps a somewhat different division of labour between higher education and employers, in terms of the preparation of graduates for work, different relationships with the labour market. I think there is some evidence to suggest that other European countries are rather more effective at managing the initial transition into work and graduates, in their first jobs perhaps, feel anyway rather better prepared for them than graduates within the UK.

  Q619  Chairman: With seven years to prepare yourself for work, you ought to be ready, I would have thought?

  Professor Brennan: Yes; a fair point. Indeed, rather than looking at duration within higher education, if one just took young people, I do not know, at age 27, would there be very much difference? Equally, I think there is an argument that there may be longer-term benefits from the UK approach, in terms of flexibility, in terms of lifelong learning, and really a much more open labour market in terms of the role that credentials play in moving people through them. I think the point perhaps I would want to emphasise is to recognise that the UK system reflects one particular model; there are other models around and I think we need to recognise and understand that.

2   Note by witness: Proportions of international students of around 40% can be found in some places. According to a recent HEPI report (Exposure to the International Student Market) institutions with the highest proportions of international students include LSE, SOAS, the London Business School, Essex, Luton and City universities. Back

3   Ev 472. Back

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