Specializing and Attracting International Students: The Future For British Higher EducationKeir Thorpe | Senior Academic Practice Advisor, Brunel University
In the complex marketplace which has been created by ongoing reforms of UK higher education, universities are more alert than ever to both ‘positioning’ and their ‘brand’. The marketplace is a confused one, not only with differentiated fees but also factors such as ‘core and margin’ and the open competition for students with AAB+ ‘A’ level grades. The rapid expansion of degree provision by FE (Further Education) colleges has further complicated the situation. Whereas once universities would partner with local FE colleges increasingly they are seeing them as competitors. For students, FE colleges, especially when located close to their homes, and with lower fees than universities offer can be a very appealing alternative way to get a degree. In addition, taking a degree programme at an FE college can mean avoiding the challenges that moving to a university can bring; in fact some students may simply stay on at a college where they have taken their ‘A’ levels.
To make itself stand out in the marketplace each university is not only using marketing very vigorously but also adopting curriculum and an approach which is seen both as appealing to particular sets of students and distinctive. There is a sense that in time there will be specialisation of universities. To some extent this has happened since 1992 in towns and cities with more than one university. In such locations each institution targets a different category of student, often by social class but also by a focus on vocational or more academic courses. However, the desire for status means that even universities with a strong reputation in more vocationally-focused degrees can feel compelled to offer more traditionally academic courses. The British obsession with ‘name’, perception, status and reputation is a further complicating factor in the more competitive higher education marketplace.
Some commentators on UK higher education make statements based on assumptions of snobbery: the sense that something more elite or older will naturally be more enduring and has to be of the best quality. This perception is not in fact borne out in the UK in terms of how different universities are thriving. Poor quality courses can be taught at leading universities and world class courses at new universities, especially in non-traditional subjects. In the complex work environment to thrive an economy needs people skilled in both.
If you look beyond the teaching and the marketing to the balance sheet you can see some of the newest universities are financially secure whereas some of the research-intensive universities are struggling and have had to make redundancies over the past five years. Research intensity and quality does not guarantee a sustainable income or a successful approach to budgeting. In some cases elite universities are hampered by feeling obliged to keep smaller class sizes and offer courses which are losing their appeal. In contrast, newer universities have often been compelled to run on tighter budgets from the outset so are better equipped in the recession, they are also more used to making hard decisions, such the closure of departments, sooner. Whilst this is not to say that some research-intensive universities will not thrive and some newer universities will suffer, when looking at the future of institutions, assumptions should not be made about their chances of survival on the basis of status, but on economic realities. It is possible that we will see more closures of departments, perhaps as the government has stated, of entire universities. This may stem from increased specialisation. Other developments may occur, such as universities buying departments from other universities, takeovers and mergers. Given that universities are in reality large companies, it should not longer be a surprise if we see behaviour that we associate with corporations.
International students have long been a key element of UK universities, though the sense that particular attention needs to be paid to their experiences has come rather belatedly. These days the support for international students coming for all levels of study is much more apparent. International students’ fees have been vital in keeping some universities profitable and any disruption to their flow is liable to impact heavily. One challenge is that compared to its European neighbours, higher education in the UK for international students, as for UK students, is quite expensive. Now that so many European countries have university courses run in English the key obstacle to both international students and UK students attending them has been removed. It seems likely that, increasingly, the UK will have to fight hard to maintain its market share of international students as these go to countries such as the Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Finland, among others. In addition, there is already evidence that students, for example from Africa, would rather attend a satellite campus of a UK university in Asia than come to the UK campus. The UK, especially in its big cities, can seem very expensive to study in. It is not only for international students but UK ones that British universities will have to compete; Dutch and US universities are particularly appealing to British students themselves.
The other challenge facing the UK in terms of international students is one which faced Australia in the past. This is the popular demand for the strengthening of visa requirements. Not only has this impinged on the numbers of university-level students coming into the UK, for example from India, but also on language schools and colleges that previously attracted students for pre-degree level study. This latter sector has seen great impact from the visa changes. The fact that this cuts off a ‘feed through’ to universities is already being noticed. A student who may have come to study English in the UK as a teenager may have a tendency to come back to study a degree later. Not having that earlier opportunity now may change their mind about coming for degree study in the future. Given the income international students generate, not only for schools and universities, but for many towns, this aspect is liable to have a long-term and widespread economic impact. The fall-off in international student numbers at UK universities while still high and rising may slump abruptly due to the challenges of international university students getting visa clearance to study at any level.
These are some of the drivers that seem to be the ones that are liable to impact on UK universities in the next 5 years. What is noticeable is that after 10-15 years of growth and relative stability the British university sector is moving into a very confused period buffeted by a wide range of pressures. This makes the next decade for UK higher education much harder to predict. What is certain is that this will be a challenging period for all universities and they need to be both alert and astute to thrive in such a context.
Author Perspective: Administrator