Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)



  Q620  Mr Marsden: Can we move on and talk about some of the issues around the international market for research. You have said already, I think, from the panel, that you do not think there is an issue in terms of brain drain and brain circulation—I am waiting for brain substitution—but is it the same thing when you are attracting academics, the same factors when you attract academics that you get when you are attracting students: quality, reputation, employment prospects? Is there any change in the rankings when you are trying to attract academics as opposed to when you are trying to attract students?

  Professor Brown: I think the same things apply. Academics are driven by a number of things; one would be resources, will you get the resources you need, will you get the time to do the research that you are doing, will you be surrounded by people who are leading people in that field, these are things you are driven by. I think that applies to most academics, in most countries, to some extent; obviously, the salary makes a difference, but if that were the case then more British academics would go to the US, and they do not leave, so there are other considerations as well. There is absolutely no doubt about it that the key thing, in terms of attracting high quality staff here, is the reputation of the university, which I think is absolutely vital, and all the universities in the UK, it seems to me, are doing the same thing now, they are all looking at the Shanghai rankings, The Times ranking, they are looking at how they are being put together, and they are trying to work out how they can lift their profile. One of the problems with that, of course, is if you lift your profile globally then what is the impact on the domestic, national structure for the university and the competition, for example, within the universities in the UK, in terms of access to resources? Do we say that we should try to target, say, 10 universities in the UK to be in the top 100, in terms of global rankings, or do we say that we should give more resources to all the universities within Britain to improve the student experience and the staff experience? For example, in my university, I get a lot of time for research; in new universities there is far less time for research. It is not a level playing-field.

  Q621  Mr Marsden: Professor Robinson, in other circumstances and about other issues when the Committee has looked at HE, it has become apparent that, in the UK set-up, in terms of UK students, the issue of particular schools or particular departments, rather than just the issue of the overall reputation of a university, is becoming more and more important. If I can put it this way, with not just your Chinese hat on but with your other experiences in other countries as well, is this something which is happening overseas? If you are a Chinese academic, do you think automatically "I really must go to Oxford or Imperial," as opposed to "I'm going to Nottingham" or "I'm going to Liverpool, because they're particularly good in my subject area"?

  Professor Robinson: I think, first of all, they would choose the top band of universities that they would consider, and then, within that, they would look for the clusters of excellence.

  Q622  Mr Marsden: There is still a banding approach?

  Professor Robinson: There is still a banding approach. In fact, in China, I think the banding is more formalised than it is in the UK. There are, as it were, government rankings of universities, so they are expecting to find similar rankings when they come here.

  Q623  Mr Marsden: There is a lot of discussion, and no doubt, when we go to China, we will probe it a bit, in terms of how far the economic and intellectual classes in China are able to develop their own ideas via the Internet. Is there the ability to have use of the Internet to pursue alternative views of where they should go, as opposed to the state views?

  Professor Robinson: I think students have quite a free choice, in getting information about universities and deciding where to go, and many of them are not coming on government funding any more.

  Q624  Mr Marsden: There is much more independent thought?

  Professor Robinson: I think so.

  Professor Brown: Of course, it depends which universities they have heard of; probably they have heard of only four or five universities in the UK so that immediately they are driven towards those universities. I think it is the issue of lifting the profile of some of the other universities in the UK which is important, to give them more of a choice about where they might go; that is an issue, I think.

  Mr Davidson: From a different country, India, where we run an Education Research Initiative, recently we made 30 awards on linking departments to departments. Certainly it is clear, just looking down the list of those, that the Indian institutions have identified departments with which they are interested in being linked, rather than universities.

  Q625  Mr Marsden: We will come on to ask a couple of things perhaps, Martin, in a moment, but I wonder, Professor Brennan, if I could ask you, in terms of where the UK stands over its global reputation for research quality, where you think we stand today, compared with, say, 10 years ago, and are there particular areas where we are on the up, as opposed to on the down?

  Professor Brennan: Honestly, I do not think I have got any real evidence to provide a good view on that. Perhaps I would comment though, on the point of internationalisation of research, on what I think is the growing volume of research collaboration on international projects and multinational research teams working together, that in many cases it is no longer a pattern of academics choosing to up sticks and go to live on the other side of the world, for many people now, your closest collaborators can be on a different continent. I think there is a different take perhaps on internationalisation.

  Q626  Mr Marsden: Can I come back to you, Martin Davidson. Professor Brennan has raised the issue there of collaboration. We know, do we not, that scientific and technical research is a major issue, in that respect; do you think that the UK's generally good reputation for research in those areas has been affected, in terms of overseas perception, by the threatened closure of science courses at some universities, because clearly that has been something which has been in the news and around?

  Mr Davidson: There is no doubt that anything which happens in British higher education gets reflected, to a greater or lesser extent, in different countries. For example, in Singapore, normally you will find an article about the closure of a department reflected almost the next day in headlines in the New Straits Times. It does vary from country-to-country. I do not think that the individual actions of universities' particular departments have a long-term impact. As I say, there is anecdotal evidence but also some statistical evidence that when we are talking about research collaboration the factors which are likely to have the greatest impact are the reputation of the department internationally, the opportunity for individuals within that department to have been cited in literature which a potential research collaborator might have read, and the opportunity to meet at international conferences. That tends to drive the selection of individual departments. Certainly it is true, if you take international citations of research as one element, that the level of citation from the UK research is as high as, if not slightly higher than, it has been over a number of years, it runs roughly around 30% of the most highly cited, at the moment. I think that sort of evidence actually is of more importance, in terms of decisions that departments make about where they are going to create their research, than any particular headline or particular institution.

  Professor Brown: Just an aside really; we were talking about closing departments of science. In relation to engineering, I was reminded of an interview with a leading German multinational company, which said how appalling was the state of science and engineering in Britain and the US and how far we have to go to catch up with China and with Russia now. Certainly the view within some multinationals is that we are already massively behind and show no evidence that we are moving forward, and it was a bit of a shock to hear this person, who had global responsibility for recruitment, talking about the state of science.

  Q627  Chairman: Where did German and Russian universities come in the research rankings? I have always understood that Germany does not have one university in the top-ranked universities?

  Professor Brown: It depends where you go. Within the top 100, I think there are five; which, of course, is how they responded, because now they are very worried about this, and before they had a level playing-field. They have said, "Look, all our universities are good," so pretty much they were defending as being across the board. Now, they have introduced this I think it is like an `excellence' policy, and they try to identify, initially, five universities and put more money into those particular institutions. Of course, the consequence of that will be that internationally they will be seen to be the top German universities, that German students now will want to get into those universities, more and more resources will be fed into those universities, so what are the implications then for the other German universities, which have not been selected within that top five? That is how the impact of global competition and thinking at that level then can have national implications, which we need to think about.

  Mr Davidson: On that, going back to the point which you made much earlier, Phillip, Germany has roughly the same level of international citation as the UK for its research, even though it does not have a university in that top 20. Russia, in contrast, has about one-third the number of international citations.

  Q628  Mr Marsden: I might raise the issue of where the German citations come from, whether they come from German universities or German academics at other universities; but we will let that one pass, for the moment. I want to move on, finally and relatively briefly, to the issue of collaboration, which has been touched on already. The Committee has been given some facts and figures about the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, which is talking about developing 50 new collaborative research projects, saying, at the moment, I think, 40 new UK award programmes delivered collaboratively in India, 300 additional Indian research students, postdoctoral researchers and staff will have worked in the UK, and a target of 2,000 Indian research students completing research degrees in the UK through collaborative delivery. I would like Professor Robinson to comment on the specifics of that sort of model for China, but I wonder if any of the rest of you has any views as to how that particular model is shaping up, and how useful it is as a model perhaps for partnership and collaboration with other countries?

  Mr Davidson: As you know, the British Council is managing this scheme on behalf of the partners. Inevitably, perhaps, I would see it as a very successful model. We have already established 30 research agreements, six major ones and about 24 minor ones. I think perhaps more to the point than the numbers is the impact which undoubtedly it has had, in terms of the sense in India of the UK being interested in and committed to Indian research, the idea that the UK collaboration is not simply one way—"Give us your students; come and do your research here"—but that we are interested in the development of research capacity and capability in India and recognise the quality of the research which has been done there. I think that has made a significant shift, inevitably it is uninflatable, in perception of the UK and the UK's interest in India. Again, anecdotally, we have been approached by two other countries, most notably by Pakistan, to recreate similar schemes for them.

  Q629  Mr Marsden: Professor Robinson, if we talk about India, and Pakistan perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, we are dealing there with countries and cultures with which, for good or ill, this country has had a very intimate relationship over a 200-year period, where the academic structures, the educational structures, are much closer to the UK's traditional structures than a country like China, for example. Would a similar sort of research partnership initiative work between the UK and China, and, perhaps the trickier question, when you have a country like China, which historically has not had a culture of open academic inquiry in the way that we have had, is that an insuperable barrier to the construction of something similar to what the British Council now are overseeing with India?

  Professor Robinson: First of all, I would like to say, China is not the only country which has not had an open academic system. As I go to Pakistan tomorrow, I am very aware of the constraints on my work there. I think the models are good and have got potential in many contexts, so I see no reason why some version of these models would not work in China. The difference is the past historical relationship, I guess, with India and with Pakistan, and that may play a role. China has got a very strong government policy to develop research. The Chinese Government is investing in research and so it is very strongly policy-driven; so, again, that is a favourable environment. I guess, on the openness, it depends very much on the subject areas you are talking about. We think, for many technology, science-oriented programmes, for management, business practices, languages, though that is maybe not of so much interest, for many areas of research I do not think there would be too many problems, though, of course, like other countries, there is a big bureaucracy to work through in getting some of these things implemented.

  Mr Davidson: My own experience of China would be that I think many of these schemes would work extremely well there, and indeed in the past there have been schemes linking institutions together, including for joint degrees as well as joint research. On the question of openness, one issue which one always has to bear in mind is about the transfer of data, and certainly there are problems with China, particularly in some of the social sciences areas, about transfer of data, if you are going to be involved in joint research. There are particular areas where there are some complexities.

  Chairman: We are going to move on; but there is a bit of me that thinks we are not using your knowledge as well as we could. You know our topic for this; this is a major inquiry into higher education, a sustainable university, and what I want us to get out of this next bit is much more a focus which we started to get, some of you were getting towards it, because probably we were asking you the wrong questions, how sustainable is it? Some of you were getting near it when you were saying "But it's all about international competition; if the Germans are putting all the money in five universities, what happens to the rest?" This is what we are after, what is the kind of world we are living in, in higher education, now, and what is this international market doing; is it for good or for ill or are there real dangers, or should we be bouncing back and investing far more in whatever? Can we have that frame a bit more, from colleagues and in terms of the answers: Paul?

  Q630  Paul Holmes: There always used to be a view that overseas students would study here, go back to their country and be an ambassador for Britain, because they would rise up the ranks of business and government and journalism and they would have fond memories of having studied in the UK and that would benefit us. Was that ever true and is it true now?

  Professor Brown: I can give you an answer of sorts, on current research with these companies. Overseas experience is important, if you get the linguistic experiences and the social and cultural experiences, because that is what they are looking for in international companies. The problem is, if you stay at home, you might even go to an elite university but you do not have that range of experience that they are looking for; that is why a lot of the élite in China and India, and elsewhere, will still want to come to the US and to the UK. There is some evidence now, and this is one of the things we need to think about also, that, of course, some of the Indian companies and the Chinese companies are becoming multinationals in their own right and they are looking to recruit, and, of course, because there are linguistic and cultural differences between Europe and Asia, they are likely to recruit from their own élite institutions. We begin to see a slight change, where there are better job opportunities now within India and China, and especially the élite institutions in India, if you can get in one you will go in there. The Indian institutes of management and technology are the best in the world, they are more difficult to get into than Harvard; so if you get a chance to go you will go there and you might well end up then working for a company which has become multinational, like Infosys, or something of that nature. I think there are the beginnings of change. Going back to the general points, it seems to me that the pace of change was so rapid that our knowledge at the moment, and all the assumptions with which we are operating, about higher education, jobs and rewards, I think is fundamentally flawed. I think we need to go back and look at this in much more detail and not assume simply that we understand what globalisation is. The basic model we operate with is this view that they are, if you like, `head and body' nations, that the economy develops in an evolutionary way, you go through industrial to post-industrial development, it takes a very long time to develop good universities and to expand those universities, and therefore it will take a long time for India and China to catch up. We are the head nations in the developed economies and most of the high-skill, high-wage work will stay here, or in America, and our competitors, fundamentally, in what we see as `knowledge wars' are within Europe and North America or Japan. I think that is fundamentally flawed. I think that does not understand whatsoever what is going on in places like China and India particularly. The pace of development is extraordinary; when you think that now China has more people in higher education than the US. China has 20 million students; the US is a bit below that.

  Q631  Chairman: That is an accurate figure, is it?

  Professor Brown: It is from one of their senior civil servants.

  Q632  Chairman: From our briefing, the Chinese are building a university a week; that sounds really strange to me?

  Professor Brown: I think that is an exaggeration. One concrete example I can give you, and I do not know where you are going to in China but I suggest you go to Guangzhou, which is Canton, and there you will find, I think it is called, the University City; this is just on the outskirts of Guangzhou. There was nothing there in 2001. The regional authorities were concerned about the state of higher education, they thought they needed rapidly to increase their resources, primarily it was agricultural land, so they built 10 universities on this site; there was nothing there in 2001. In 2005 there were 80,000 students and that will increase next year to 120,000 students. I did not believe it, so I went there. You take the high-speed, underground tube, where the stations are like Westminster, one of the few which is built like that, and it is `state of the art' buildings. They have done that in five years. When you combine that kind of knowledge, the largest training institute in the world, I think, is Infosys, near Bangalore, which can train 15,000 people at any one time, when you put this kind of information together with talking to the multinationals, which are themselves, if you like, denationalising their training and their skill formation, and previously they would go into a country, where it would be the home base, and basically they worked with what they had got, they knew there was a national system, but as they have become more globalised themselves, of course, they are having to think more strategically about what they put, where, and the greater flexibility they have to combine knowledge bases in Britain and Asia and elsewhere means they can do things differently. One of the things they can do differently, of course, is that they can get innovation at a much cheaper price. We are not competing just on skills, we are competing on price, and we are competing on price further-and-further up the skills and knowledge chain. It seems to me that what we need to be studying is precisely what that process is, how extensive it is and what the implications are then for British higher education and for our students and for our competition strategy, because if we do not we are going to be finding answers to the wrong questions.

  Q633  Paul Holmes: Phillip, effectively you are saying that the old view of overseas students being the ambassadors for Britain is just totally out of date. Martin, the British Council have said: "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." Which view is correct, the British Council's or Phillip's?

  Mr Davidson: The British Council's, of course. I do not think there is any question whatsoever that in the past the opportunity for students to study in the UK and return to their own countries has been a very substantial and significant component of the long-term relationship which they create, whether it is commercial or, if they move into other areas of work, political or economic relationships with this country. You have merely to take China as a case in point, where the relationships built within an academic environment are relationships which last throughout a lifetime and are regarded as relationships which can be drawn upon. Clearly it would be foolish for us, as a nation, simply to regard that as something which is going to continue, because the flows of students in the past largely have been élite. The environment we are moving into is where there is a mass flow of students, a mass flow of knowledge, and we have to engage in that. As I said earlier on, I do not think any longer we can see ourselves as a domestic higher education system, isolated from the rest of the world. Like it or not, we have become part of an international flow of students, and you have only to look at some of the numbers, 74% of research students in finance are from overseas, 63% in electronic engineering, 56% in architectural building and planning. A large proportion of our research base is populated by flows of foreign students, our own students are moving overseas as well, while not perhaps at the undergraduate level, certainly at the postgraduate, and at the post-experience level British academics are working overseas. We are part of this global movement now.

  Q634  Chairman: We may be part of the global movement but is it dangerous to our British higher education, or is it just a question of taking on large numbers of foreign students just to balance the books, not about the integrity or, something that Phillip said earlier, the public good? Is this the way to death and destruction or going to hell in a handcart, just by following this market willy-nilly?

  Mr Davidson: I would argue that institutions have not simply followed the trend. It is part of the environment within which all advanced nations and nations seeking to create advanced education systems for themselves are going. Singapore, Malaysia, China, India are all making substantial shifts of their education system into an international environment. It increases the competition for us. The number of countries where actually you can now, in Europe, study in English, so that those education systems can take part in this flow of students, is enormous; France, Germany, all the Scandinavian countries, The Netherlands, all are now offering degree courses in English, in order to attract foreign students and to take part in this international flow. To an extent, it is the environment where we are. I suppose one may regret it. I am not sure one should regret it, but actually it is the environment in which we are working now.

  Q635  Chairman: We heard Phillip saying we should be concentrating and make all our universities as good as possibly they can be, to train our own people to the relevant levels to compete globally. Is that what you were saying, Phillip?

  Professor Brown: I think, more and more, we have got to stop thinking that we are going to be the winners all the time; basically, more of these research jobs now are going to go to Asia. I think the thing that we have to do, more than anything else, is develop the links, international links, with other high-rated universities and research institutes so that we will get some of this work. It is highly likely that the leading corporations will not be putting all their eggs in one basket, they will be spreading a lot of this work and development around and we have to get a slice of that action. I think there is no doubt about it, of course, we need to train up our students as well as we possibly can; now they need to do that in an environment which is not monocultural. The sooner we get away from class, middle-class, boys and girls, from the South East and elsewhere, the better. It seems to me, it is not simply the question "Is this class full of Chinese students?" but "Is the class full of white, middle-class, British students?" It seems to me, it is about the social mix, is it not? It is about how you get a mix of cultural experience, and adult learners as well; how you combine them so you improve the quality of the education for them to be able to have some kind of understanding of the world beyond London, or Cardiff, or wherever it might be; that seems to be absolutely crucial. If you have not got that kind of cultural understanding then you are not going to get very far in the way in which things seem to be going today.

  Professor Brennan: To echo that point, in terms of UK students, part of a high quality, higher education experience needs to be an international experience, in some sense of that. That does not mean necessarily being mobile or studying somewhere else, it is to do with what is going on in your own campus, and international students are part of that, as is the staffing profile, as is the overall activity of the university. Just a model which interested me, which I would share with the Committee, I had lunch, a few months ago, with a former vice chancellor of a British university, who has now been hired as a consultant to the Technical University of Kuala Lumpur. The Technical University of Kuala Lumpur is opening campuses simultaneously in London, New York, Beijing, and I think there is a fourth one as well as the Kuala Lumpur home. What I found quite interesting about this model was that a requirement of studying at this multinational university is that you divide your time between two of the campuses. To me, that is reflecting a model of internationalism which I found quite interesting; and these were quite substantial ambitions, they were talking about a campus for 4,000 or 5,000 students in the UK. Where those students come from is another question; they may be competing for the home UK market, which would be an interesting one.

  Q636  Paul Holmes: Bernadette, from your point of view, you work with a lot of overseas students who come to Nottingham, you work inside Pakistan and China, are there two different goals here, the mass volume of business and science students and the more rarefied world of people who are going to go into government and journalism, for example, where the old idea of the ambassadors comes from?

  Professor Robinson: I think the old idea of ambassadors is changing, and partly because now many people study in more than one country, so you find, in China, they do not come just to the UK, the same people go also to Malaysia or Korea or Japan even and they are getting experience of more than one country, Australia as well is very popular. The idea that they go to just one country and develop an allegiance to that country I do not think is true any longer, but I think it is true that, having worked with students, lifelong contacts develop with them and a relationship which you can use for other things as well. I would like just to throw in a couple of snippets; one is, nobody has mentioned the language issue and the students who come to the UK and get a PhD are coming and getting it often in a second language. They are then competing sometimes with students from the UK for the same jobs. Our students have a declining language competence and I think, unlike other governments, of course I should except the recent initiatives in the UK, many other countries have been promoting second, even third, language development. In China you cannot get a degree unless you pass an English examination, at any university, and we seem to be going in the other direction, recent initiatives excepted, so that we are producing graduates who, when their CVs are put together, will lose out because they are not as well qualified as some of their foreign competitors in the international market. The other snippet I would like to throw in is about research. There is growing research capacity in Asia, which I think will be very challenging for the UK. If we look at US research investment, for instance, in recent years that has increased in China by 25% a year; in Europe, US research investment has increased by only 8% a year, so we have a declining share of investment in research from the US, which would reflect our perception of the research here. There is growing capacity elsewhere.

  Q637  Paul Holmes: Is that 8% of a much larger starting-point, as opposed to 25% of a small base?

  Professor Robinson: I have not got the figures. I can give you the reference to the figures behind that. I think what it is indicating is a judgment about where the future lies and it is not in European research and American research, this is just China, there is also investment in other Asian countries as well.

  Q638  Paul Holmes: Thinking of the concept that people talk about now, of a global citizen, if we look back in 20 years' time will the UK have lost out on that, because, on the one hand, the global citizens are this massive tide of expanding institutions overseas and, on the other hand, we have got an increasingly insular and non-linguistically able, like me, graduates in the UK?

  Professor Robinson: It is an interesting question. I think another snippet is the EU's Innovation Scoreboard, where it compares EU, US and Japan on 26 indicators, and the EU comes much lower than US or Japan. Ján Figel', the Commissioner for Education and Training in the EU, estimated that it would take the EU 50 years to catch up with US innovation, yet innovation is one of the things which will determine the future of economies and education and the whole well-being of countries. I think that is a very interesting thing to look at, so looking not just at courses or programmes but the whole position in relation to the education system that research is producing by comparison with other countries I think is a big question which needs more explanation.

  Q639  Paul Holmes: In a world of global citizens, in 20 years' time we are going to be the country bumpkins, are we?

  Professor Brown: Our greatest strength is the English language; without that we would be in big trouble, I think, but with it we have got a chance. If you think about the Internet, and such things, and you talk to these companies, and what have you, the language is absolutely crucial. The relationship between language and culture, of course, is the interesting one. I think probably we could get away with our poor language education, but if we do not get those broader cultural experiences we really will be the country bumpkin.

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