Posted tagged ‘international students’

The decline of globalisation in higher education?

March 20, 2012

The most recent statistics released by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority (Higher Education: Key Facts and Figures 2010-11) contain some interesting information. One of the things we learn is that international student recruitment by Irish universities and colleges has stalled and may be in decline.  During the past academic year the numbers went down for all the key countries and regions, with the sole exception of recruitment from other EU countries. In so far as international student recruitment supports the finances of the sector, recruitment from EU countries does not make a contribution as the students do not pay tuition fees.

Overall, international students account for a mere 7 per cent of the Irish student body. This compares with 17 per cent in the United Kingdom, though some evidence suggests that new visa rules in the UK may also be about to have a negative effect on numbers there. In the UK this may to some extent be compensated for by a continuing strong rise in students studying for a British degree in their own countries.

But what of Ireland? The  percentage of international students is already too low. It is not just that international students bring money, they also create a more cosmopolitan and diverse student body and enhance the experience for home students. It would be wholly negative if the trend towards a more international kind of higher education were to be reversed. There is work to be done.

International students – no longer welcome?

February 7, 2012

One of the key features of higher education across the developed world in recent years has been the growth of student migration. Students have increasingly been encouraged to consider universities in other countries when making their study choices, and this has led to a very significant internationalisation of higher education. Some countries – and the United States of America in particular – have a long record of attracting overseas students, many of whom then stayed and contributed to innovation and economic growth. And while it may not have been something that was always stressed as part of the reason for international student recruitment, host countries tended to benefit significantly from the tuition fees paid by these students.

But in Britain at any rate, is this about to come to an end? Over the past while UK visa regulations have placed increasing burdens both on overseas students coming into the country and on the universities in which they wish to study. It is a highly bureaucratic and intrusive framework, and it has been seen in many countries from which students have been recruited as indicating that foreign students are no longer welcome in Britain. And now, this has been reinforced by some political messages. British Immigration Minister Damian Green, describing as ‘beneficial’ a drop of 11 per cent in student visas, recently said the following in a speech:

‘Of course international students bring economic and wider benefits. But … there is scope for further examination of whether and to what extent foreign student tuition fees boost the UK economy and crucially how UK residents ultimately benefit from that. We need a better understanding of the economic and social costs and benefits of student migration: from the point of view of the wider UK economy, the education sector itself and the students themselves.    There needs to be a focus on quality rather than quantity. The principle of selectivity should apply to student migration just as it does to work migration.’

The Minister is therefore suggesting that attracting overseas students, even very good ones, is not necessarily positive, and he voices doubts about the economic impact or benefit of their fees. He also shows no awareness of or sympathy for the wider principle of an international dimension to higher education.

In many countries, and in Britain in particular, debates about immigration quickly turn into unpleasant discussions in which gut suspicions, sometimes mixed at least a little with xenophobia, distort rational decision-making. The current trend of UK policies on immigration is bizarre, and is undermining the global reputation of British higher education. There are traces of this also in other countries. None of this makes sense, and it undermines the ethos of higher education. Politicians need to think again, urgently.

Crossing the language barriers

May 25, 2011

So let’s say you’re from Indonesia and you’d like to study management through the medium of English. Where do you go? Britain? The United States? Maybe not. In fact, it’s not at all unlikely that you’ll choose to go to Germany, and that you’ll enjoy all the amenities of Kaffee und Kuchen without ever having to say the words. Germany is open for higher education business, in English. Or rather, in what they call ‘international English’, which apparently is English without a trace of a Yorkshire accent; or even an American one.

This is what we learn from a report by the BBC’s education correspondent, Sean Coughlan. Not only are German universities now offering English language programmes, they are even providing them to international students without charging them any tuition fees. How this model is financially viable could be a matter of discussion, but in the meantime it has moved Germany into top position in a league table, compiled by the British Council, of countries most friendly to overseas students – well ahead of the United Kingdom and the United States. For now the number of student places available under this model is still limited, but if this kind of provision is expanded it could have major implications.

German universities are still not in the top league of research institutions, and they will still find it difficult to match the attractions of the Ivy League and Oxbridge. But they may nevertheless develop a growing number of international students and graduates who will become ambassadors for them in their home countries. Just as English becomes more and more the dominant language globally of both trade and scholarship, its country (or countries) of origin may lose ground. The globalisation of higher education may yet involve many unexpected elements.

Organising international student recruitment

March 31, 2011

In Ireland the new government has now been in place for a couple of weeks or so, and it is interesting to note what has been its first higher education initiative: international student recruitment. Last week Ruairi Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills (together with Richard Bruton, whose ministerial title is Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation), launched a new government campaign or brand, ‘Education in Ireland’, thereby implementing one of the commitments of the programme for government. According to the agency’s website, it will help to market Ireland ‘as a destination for students’ and will support Irish education institutions in doing so.

The idea in itself is not new, and for much of the past ten years attempts have been made to establish a body of this kind. However, sufficient resources were never made available and this (and one or two other obstacles) made the implementation of the plans difficult. Whether all this has now been overcome remains to be seen.

The government’s targets are not modest. In the announcement of the establishment of the agency the government declares that international student numbers in Ireland should be doubled to 52,o00. To put that in perspective, the Irish university sector has 96,000 students, and the institutes of technology have 62,000. Even allowing for the fact that a large proportion of the 52,000 students will be heading for the private English language colleges, this is still a massive number, and it may need to be said that international recruitment should not be seen as something with limitless potential: there needs to be a sensible balance of overseas and home students. I do not know how many students are targeted for the universities, but any number higher than 15,000 or so may not be appropriate.

It also needs to be emphasised again that international students – and their fee income – are no substitute for the proper funding of domestic students. It would not be reasonable to see international student recruitment as a method of subsiding core higher education activities. There are good reasons for recruiting overseas students, but this must be done for pedagogical and cultural reasons, and not just or mainly for financial ones. Seeing education largely as an export product creates significant quality risks. It is therefore important that those running this new initiative consider the brief carefully and that they work closely with the universities.

International students: for learning or for money?

March 8, 2011

Just as the prospective Irish government tells us that universities should double the number of international students they recruit, we read that in Britain 10 per cent of university revenues now come from overseas student fees. International education is increasingly not seen as something that links countries culturally and intellectually, but rather as a key export service that helps to improve the balance of payments and provides cash for higher education institutions.

Of course international students do provide an income for their universities, and the funds thereby gained are welcome. But this should not be the primary objective, and once it becomes so universities will be tempted to take commercial and quality risks in order to maximise their revenues.

International students have significant requirements and needs, and they need to be integrated into the host university community while also having the opportunity to share something of their cultural backgrounds. To do this satisfactorily they need to be integrated into classes with a good mix of domestic and international students.

It is undoubtedly desirable for universities to recruit international students. However, this should be done with government support, but without simplistic targets and without a blatantly commercial approach to globalised education.

Borderless higher education?

December 20, 2010

University-based migration has become a significant feature of global demographics. Staff and students regularly take part in inter-institutional exchanges, and students will not infrequently choose a a higher education institution for their studies that is not in their own country of origin or residence. Universities that welcome international students often emphasise the benefits of educational globalisation, pointing to the impact of an international campus on intercultural awareness and global networking.

However, the key driver of international higher education these days is an economic one: students from other countries typically bring with them revenues for the host university and economic activity for the region. This makes international recruitment highly desirable for the institutions. But it is likely that students will also increasingly develop an economic perspective on studying abroad, and one illustration of this is a possible trend, identified by the Financial Times newspaper, of English students avoiding higher tuition fees by seeking to study in the branch campuses of British universities overseas (which will charge fees, but often lower fees than are now likely to apply in England).

Higher education has become an import-export business. State agencies are often charged with selling educational products abroad as a way of generating a favourable balance of trade.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with international higher education, not even when it is driven by commercial or economic considerations. But it becomes wrong when it is not designed and planned in such a way as to maximise the educational experience and intercultural benefits. Issues that need to be taken into account are the services and facilities made available to international students, the appropriate mix of domestic and international students within the institution and on individual programmes, and the provision of proper monitoring and training to ensure that students are properly versed in the language of instruction.

A globalised system of higher education is there to stay; but it needs to be one in which quality and principles of pedagogy take the lead over the quest for revenue.

Questioning the international education option

October 15, 2010

University studies, as we know, have become a globalised activity. Over the past decade or two there has been an explosion in student migration, and the more developed university systems (and it would have to be said, the English language ones in particular) have hosted increasingly large numbers from countries where higher education did not have the capacity to meet all local demand, or who wanted to enjoy a more international student experience.

Perhaps the country that pursued international markets with the greatest energy and professionalism was Australia.  Australian universities became highly active and skilled recruiters, in Asian countries in particular, and they also developed the practice of establishing branch campuses in overseas locations. At one point in the late 1990s I was watching with awe as Monash University established itself in Malaysia, South Africa and even London, creating a dynamic multinational brand. During this period, higher education became one of Australia’s foremost export products and a major contributor to resources and employment for the country.

But now all that is coming under stress. Currently Australia has around 214,000 overseas students studying in its universities (more than the entire Irish university student population), but researchers from Curtin University predict that this will fall to 148,000 over the coming five years, with a loss of AUS$ 7 billion to the economy. Already Monash University may be making 300 staff redundant as a result of falling overseas student numbers. The reasons for this are many, including operational matters such as visa rules, and competition from other countries. But I suspect that more of it is to do with changing attitudes in some of the countries from which students are recruited, who are now less willing to be one-way importers of another country’s educational products.

Taking all this closer to home, what should we be concluding? First, I believe that the volume trade in international students is coming to an end. The idea that students from, say, Asia might come and help some European or other western country’s balance of payments, or more than that, help subsidise domestic students is no longer viable (just as some politicians in Ireland are, ironically, warming to that theme). That was never really a global business anyway, it was just a case of exploiting market opportunities.

This does not mean that student migration will no longer happen; rather it means that it will happen as part of a broader package of collaborative and strategic partnerships, which will involve mutually helpful arrangements between countries and institutions, and which will be based not just on teaching some migrants who are all coming one way, but rather on exchanges and research partnerships. It requires a totally different mindset. Reaching out overseas will still be a higher education imperative, but not based solely or mainly on generating an export business. It is time for international education to become an educational, rather than mainly an economic, option.

The international experience

September 23, 2010

Earlier this week the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and Tánaiste (Deputy PM) launched a report on Ireland’s international education strategy. The purpose of the report is explained in the Tánaiste’s foreword as follows:

‘The interests of students are at the heart of our concerns. We must continue to offer international students a high-quality education and a unique student experience that is based on strong integration with their Irish peers. An education in Ireland should be a transformational experience that adds significant value to the career outcomes and personal development of students.’

Given that previous interventions by politicians have tended to present international student recruitment as a key  mechanism for raising cash to compensate for public funding cuts, this report is a major and positive departure, in part because it looks in some detail at the steps that should be taken to internationalise the curriculum and improve significantly the student experience for those recruited from overseas.

It is important that even though we may want to recruit international students as part of a financial strategy, this should never become the main reason. Internationalising education can and will provide huge benefits, but it needs to be done for the right reasons. In that sense, I have always been uneasy about numerical targets for such recruitment, as they rather hint at base motives; and indeed such general targets don’t pay enough attention to what may be appropriate (beyond simple capacity) in each institution.

I am also a tad concerned that the understandable desire to impose a quality assurance framework for international recruitment will in the end only have one major result, the major bureaucratization of higher education. That would be one reform that we do not need.

The money agenda in international education

July 19, 2010

Here’s something I have been saying for a while: if we present international student recruitment primarily (or possibly even at all) as an export-led, money-making activity, we won’t be very successful at it. Over the past couple of years Australia’s reputation as a destination for international students has been compromised somewhat because of the perception that it’s all about securing money for higher education.

Now a similar point is being made in the UK, as reported in Times Higher Education. Sir Drummond Bone, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, is reported as issuing the following warning:

‘UK universities are universally seen overseas as money hungry and not terribly good partners, and we have got to … break that. One way to do that is to send our students overseas..’

Partly this is about the imbalance between students recruited from overseas on the one hand, and students leaving to study in overseas countries on the other. Partly it is about the apparent lack of interest some universities demonstrate in the countries from which they recruit.

In order to make international student recruitment sustainable and ethically sound, such recruitment should form part of a much broader strategy of engagement with the countries concerned, including strong research partnerships and genuine exchanges. Without that, it all looks like what the Indians call ‘body-shopping’, and once it appears that this is what we are doing our reputations will be at risk.

In Ireland there have been repeated calls for a massive increase in international student recruitment. Such calls show a high level of naivety when unaccompanied by a much clearer understanding of the limitations in numerical terms, and of the need for a much more comprehensive engagement with partner countries. Certainly international students are not the answer to public funding problems.

A burst of international education?

March 19, 2010

The Fine Gael party has issued a new policy document on international education, in which it recommends a doubling of our current ‘market share’ in the global education market, a significant increase in revenues from international third level students coming to Ireland, and the creation of ‘an estimated 6,000 jobs’. The latter projection betrays the political system’s absurd obsession with old-style job creation statistics, which cannot possibly be predicted accurately and which actually obscure the real opportunities. As the media have not surprisingly focused on this particular aspect of the Fine Gael document it risks losing its value, as the figure of 6,000 jobs is both irrelevant and bizarre.

And that is a pity, as the party’s document has a lot of interesting and worthwhile things to say. Its focus on a new student visa procedure, and more helpful rules to allow international students to work, and ideas on retaining those who come here to do higher degrees where their skills are of benefit to the Irish economy are all extremely useful.

A note of caution is however required. Fine Gael, like others before it, appear to take the view that we can easily increase international student numbers without any difficulty, and the party places the initiative at least in part in the context of revenue generation. In fact it is important to maintain a balance of home and international students, for educational as well as cultural reasons, and it is not clear to me that the number we currently have could be doubled that easily. Equally, we should develop international education not as a revenue generator, but because it is the right thing to do in providing an educational experience. Seeing international students as a source of subsidy for Irish students is both morally wrong and tactically unwise.

Despite these reservations, the Fine Gael document merits attention and further consideration.