International Students in British Universities: Time To Start Thinking

I participated in a discussion on International Students in British Universities yesterday, organised by the Society of Research in Higher Education (SRHE) Policy Network. This was at the London Metropolitan University, which is where Policy Network events always happen: However, the university being at the eye of the storm of the immigration debate over the last few months, the event assumed a particular, if unspoken, significance. As usual, it was very well organised - one tends to meet very interesting people and gets to hear perspectives never previously thought of - and presented a friendly and open environment for everyone, a fairly mixed audience, to participate.

This post is not so much about what was discussed. I am in no position to write any comprehensive summary, and have no intention to report on what was primarily an open and frank conversation. However, there are a number of broad issues that came up and are worth considering within an wider audience.

First, there was a clear concern for the sustainability of the British universities in its current form, with the rise in fees starting to hurt and international student numbers starting to fall. There is indeed a bit of a chain reaction being felt this year from Russell Group universities dropping their grade requirements, pushing the mid-ranked universities to drop theirs and so on and so forth, until the universities at the lower half of the league table have nowhere to go. Indeed, they are being squeezed by the new private providers, which are both cheaper and offer a no-frills education in the most popular subject areas, from the bottom. 

Second, despite the Tory rhetoric of getting the 'best and brightest', the International students are not going to come back. There is a worldwide competition for them, and the British universities are not particularly generous in rewarding them to come to Britain. Besides, the British universities are so used to the idea of international students as a source of revenue to cross-subsidise the 'home' students, whose fees are still capped, albeit at a higher level, that they are unable to adjust to the new paradigm of international students, wherein they would be welcome in the institutions to enable a different kind of knowledge creation, required, arguably, for this 'global' age.

Third, a point made very succinctly, if slightly counter-intuitively, at the meeting is that there is something inherently problematic how the whole sector viewed international students. This permeates into this talk about British universities becoming unsustainable as the international students stop coming, because they make up almost 20% of the total student numbers and 78% of the students in Taught Masters programmes. In fact, this mode of internationalisation has corrupted the sector's ability to compete at home, argue in one voice for public support, and, like American universities, find and create alternative sources of revenue on the face of disappearing state support. Besides, this has also spawned some of the most scandalous trends in the British academe, unrestrained franchising (leading to McDonaldization, as Phil Altbach argues), employment of agents who tend to find marginal students rather than 'the best and the brightest' and a management practice which cares less about academic values and integrity and more about marketing strategies to sell irrelevant education to unsuspecting and uninformed students.

In summary, this was an insightful session to look beyond the woes of UKBA induced curbs, and an opportunity to examine the practices of British Higher Ed sector in general with regard to institutional students. It is a rare opportunity, because the discussions in British academic circles are usually extremely inward-looking, almost in denial of the exciting possibilities and developments in the International Higher Education (the corruption through 'soft' international revenue being a very plausible explanation). Besides, discussions such as these explore adequately the rhetoric of market economy, which is pushing us into a 'market society' by stealth, introducing the logic of the market not just in areas where economically minded transactions bring best value, but also pervading practices which were traditionally in other domains. The possibility of 'Mode 3' knowledge creation, that of creation of knowledge not just with social capital but also with the investiture of transnational academics (and of students) at the heart of the process, is indeed perverted when the international students as seen as money-balls only to be served for fees and excluded promptly at the end of their 'course' is possibly a great illustration of how the market society thinking fails in imagination.   


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