British Universities in the Post-global World

International education provides the angle of vision to understand how higher education has changed over the last few decades: It neatly layers the usual academic rhetoric - that of research, widening participation and equity - behind the commercial realities of higher education, of money, ranking and legitimised migration. Discussion of the Higher Education 'business' may be blasphemy within the faculty common rooms, but it's the mantra of the field: It is indeed just another global business which has grown rapidly in the WTO world. 

And, because it is so, it is now changing. The prospects of International Education has been intricately linked with the fortunes of the 'global middle class'. That specific expression stands for a new middle class in Asia and Africa (and to a smaller extent, in Latin America) which came into existence because of post-nineties globalisation. Their existence is crucially dependent on global trade and global capital, and their aspirations, shaped by the Internet, is of global consumption and lifestyle. This force, rather than any scholastic motive, was the driving force behind the growth of the International student market.

This global middle class, their way of life, dreams and aspirations, are now changing. There are several forces at play, but primary among these are the reversal of globalisation and decimation of global service industry jobs due to automation. The developed countries, Britain among them, did not want them anymore, favouring instead the 'best and brightest', or the culturally privileged, the older middle classes. Under these pressures, the format of international education is changing, and the British universities, leading providers of International Education, are woefully underprepared for this change.

In a way, British universities created this new form of International Education. They were there at the right position at the right time. Thatcher-induced commercial imperatives and the vast expansion of the sector in the 90s (when polytechnics were abolished and were turned into universities, which some call 'abolition of the universities') prepared them appropriately to take advantage of the rise of the global middle class, as global supply chain and 'liberalisations' in Asian and East European countries opened up a vast global market. They put a collective claim on the ancient heritage of Oxbridge, drew upon the colonial affinities of the Commonwealth and capitalised the global pull of English language and the charm of London and English countryside (juxtaposed together in an unreal collage) to claim leadership in the field as it emerged. [This last statement must be qualified as the United States attracts vastly more students than Britain; but Britain only has about 170 universities, compared to over 3000 in the US]

This has, so far, paid a handsome dividend. Britain's universities are often more multicultural than any in the world. Early success in international student recruitment meant an alumni base that reinforced the leadership position. Attracting diverse talents energised research capabilities too: British universities consistently punch above their weight in research impact and its diverse researcher base is critically important for this. [In this, the EU membership and the popularity of Britain among the EU scholars was of great significance too]

This strength shielded the British universities from the Conservative government's pledge of limiting migration (which it failed to keep) and the 2016 referendum and the Brexit situation which Britain is still dealing with.As the International student market kept expanding, Britain, as a leading country, still attracted an ever increasing number of students, with the Chinese, primarily the Chinese, offsetting for the loss of Indian, Nigerian and other poorer country students.

However, this also meant that global strategy in British universities more or less meant the same thing for over twenty years now: Getting agents, wining and dining with education barons in Asia, Africa and further afield and doing deals to offer perfunctory credits for courses done abroad. When one or the other market turned sour, as they did from time to time, the universities merely shifted their focus to another market. In the corridors of international offices, there were always flavours of the month and countries of the year. The operating models, however, did not vary, as there was nothing to change. Even the unimaginative visa changes of 2011 did not shake the edifice, as they were primarily directed at the private providers, and if anything, universities gained through effective elimination of private competition in the international markets (though a new form of private competition challenged them for UK and EU students).

This complacent edifice is indeed thoroughly unprepared for the rapid global changes now, which are fundamentally different than the predictable cycles of visa and immigration. I shall highlight four phenomena to watch for, as they have the potential to reconfigure the market.

First, China. The huge expansion of Chinese Higher Education and Chinese middle class' quest for western lifestyle kept the British universities insulated from the slowdown in other markets. But China is changing and the flow may stop soon. The new Chinese universities are coming of age and the Chinese government is actively putting breaks on the footloose Chinese middle class. The sudden halt of the flow of Malaysian students to Britain, in the aftermath of Thatcher-era introduction of fees for foreign students, should be within the institutional memory of the universities. There is a very real prospect of a similar Chinese situation.

Second, Britain has pursued a policy of disengagement with the new middle class (in favour of the 'best and the brightest', usually culturally privileged elite) over the last decade and this has enabled south-to-south student flows more than otherwise possible. Mauritius, Ghana, Malaysia (again), Singapore, Abu Dhabi etc emerged as regional centres of education to absorb the flow. Now, suddenly, there is an elephant in the room: China! Despite the enormous linguistic barriers, China knows that it can't attain its desired prominence without global engagement and international students present a benign and often profitable route to attain that. With China, the South-South student flows are different.

Third, education technology is coming of age. It's easy to dismiss online education as a poor alternative of university experience, but a new generation of online degrees, focused on specific skills and focused on student engagement and experience, are coming into existence. These new providers are nimble and entrepreneurial, flexibly adapting themselves to institutional partnerships and job market demands. The zombie international strategies of British universities are no match to their market knowledge and commercial savvy.

Fourth, job markets and skill demands are becoming increasingly locally defined. This was always a problem with British universities.  They were insufficiently prepared to adapt themselves to the changing job markets, especially in the countries where students are coming from. Instead, they spoke euphemistically about global employers and global job trends, letting out the fact that they don't have the faintest idea what jobs people actually do in Dubai, Mumbai or Manila.

These four factors together poses a serious challenge to the British universities and their international play. The current structures of international operations are often not entrepreneurial enough to deal with such change: the post-immigration reform private higher education sector, competing mainly in the domestic market, is also insufficiently geared to provide the leadership and enterprise that the public sector needs to get its act together.   


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