The Brave Global World Of The British Universities

British Universities are very global and not at the same time. 

If one walks into an university classroom, particularly a Postgraduate one, chances are to meet a  majority of students coming from outside the UK. In fact, almost 70% of the students in Research and Taught Higher Degrees at the UK universities came from outside the UK in 2013/14, as did 18% of the First Degree students. In England, 19% of all students are International, and one in five in Scottish universities would have been born elsewhere. 38% of all Business students, 32% of all Engineering students and 25% of all Law students are International. Add to this the 636,675 students pursuing an UK degree from abroad (of which 76,600 are in Malaysia and 50,070 in Singapore), mainly due to the franchising and other arrangements that have become a long-established tradition in the UK universities (UKCIS Data). UK universities also represent a global research superpower. BIS reports UK represents just 0.9% of the global population, it accounts for 3.2% of R&D expenditure, 4.1% of researchers, 6.4% of research articles, 9.5% of research article downloads and 15.9% of the world's most highly-cited articles (see here). This picture is indeed of a globally engaged Higher Education sector.

At the same time though, the institutions remain publicly funded, with most university leaders coming from within the UK university system. The conversation in most universities, with a few notable exceptions, centre around the UK undergraduate students, vagaries of government policy and a generally weary sense of the world. The universities, despite their large exposure abroad through the students in franchised provision, have very little connection with employers or local communities that those students live in. The engagement of UK Higher Education sector abroad remains tentative. The world of new global education, driven by internationalisation, private capital and technology, is led by the Americans, followed by companies and institutions based in Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong. This, for most UK universities, is a world gone crazy, with Higher Education sector dominated by marauding foreigners.

Yet, when the British universities do indeed argue about the global nature of Higher Education, as they do in opposition to the current governments drastic and irrational policies towards student immigration, they cite Higher Education as an export. However, this is  unlike most other export items from the UK. The UK trade thrives in its openness, and a  majority of UK exports are manufactured by foreign-owned facilities and businesses sending its wares to other countries, representing global technological superiority and connectedness at the same time. Higher Education export, at the same time, represents an export of tradition, mostly engaging former colonial markets, spinning its appeal of a former imperial nation. [As an aside, discussion of Higher Education exports within this frame of imperial connections reminds one of the comments made by the war-time Lend-Lease administration, which wanted to restrict exports to traditional items where British goods do not compete with American ones, like Scotch Whiskey and Harris Tweed, to which Keynes, sarcastically, wanted to add Haggis]. 

This reflects an approach to Higher Education that is no longer valid in most of the rest of the world. Higher Education used to be a cultural product, coveted by post-colonial elite, as a marker of privilege and prestige. In the international engagement, the UK universities for the most part, and the UK government (with its insistence on the Best and the Brightest students, and by deliberate visa norms, only the rich ones), view it largely as that, though the domestic conversation about Higher Education, with its focus on widening participation and economic empowerment, is indeed quite different. But the developing nations, and particularly the developing nations, have a different function of Higher Education - that of integrating modern technologies and practises in their societies, by reaching out to broad mass of people and diffusing the productivity-enhancing techniques broadly. This is their economic and political priorities, and a system of education to perpetuate privileges and cultural superiority of a few that British universities seem to offer is totally at odds with the emerging Chinese or Indian dream.

I concede that there are people in these societies who are after Higher Education as a cultural product, but this class is small. It is the expansion of the other classes, not the best and the brightest (and the rich), but that of skill-hungry ordinary middle class that are driving Global Higher Education and changing it. The UK universities offer little to these people, instrumental in making the emerging countries emerging.

One could perhaps blame the Government policy, particularly visa policies, for focusing too much on the privileged sections of society, but the universities themselves, and the eco-system of British Higher Education, has limited capacity to service this emerging global opportunity. For one, the American career colleges, mostly For-profit institutions readily backed by private capital and open to technology usage, are far more open - though their preparedness for global markets can be questionable - to reaching out this segment. And, while these mercenary practises can be scoffed at, they have an useful social role - of creating a skilled working class ready to use modern technologies - that the emerging societies greatly need.

British universities, however, have a historic opportunity here, but that needs a paradigm shift from seeing Higher Education as a cultural product to something that enables economic empowerment. Indeed, this is the stated mission of most of the newer British universities and economic empowerment is what they do very very well within their local communities. It is only when they engage with global markets, a combination of nostalgia, imperial hubris and cultural defensiveness overcome them. But a sincere engagement, transmitting the values of British Higher Education as an economic enabler, can build great global engagements.


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