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Students look beyond U.K., U.S., Australia

Saturday 16 December 2006, by HOARE*Stephen

New trends are starting to emerge and competition is coming from economies in the east.

THE NUMBER of overseas students studying in U.K. universities reached 344,335 last year, according to official statistics. Their countries of origin range from developing and former Commonwealth countries to Europe, the United States, and the Russian Federation. It is a cultural melting pot that broadens and enriches the academic experience.

At University College, London a third of the students are from overseas, and more than 100 nationalities are represented with China making up the biggest single cultural group. They are studying social sciences and humanities mainly but science and engineering are increasingly popular.

The growth in international numbers has been exponential: 10 years ago UCL had just 50 students from China; today there are 850. The U.S. contributes 590 students and numbers from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Russia are rising steadily.

Why are they here? "The U.K. is still seen to be offering good quality education at all levels," says Mark Pickerill, manager of UCL Students Abroad. "As an increasingly cosmopolitan society if you come to the U.K. from any part of the world you are made to feel welcome. This is particularly true of central London."

A similar picture emerges at Warwick University in central England, where international student numbers have risen 44 per cent over the past five years. It has been developing close links with U.S. and Canadian universities that extend to faculty and student exchanges.

Vice-chancellor Nigel Thrift says: "If Warwick is to keep its place nationally and improve its standing internationally we must be ready to develop a range of partnerships whilst continuing to provide a student experience that will be highly attractive to students from all parts of the world."

But globalisation is bringing competition, not only from the U.S. and Australia, whose higher education sectors are already well-established, but also from the tiger economies of south-east Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China, India and Pakistan are not far behind.

Australia has been developing close links with China, India, South Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia and offers specialist English courses and vocational and technical education in addition to traditional taught degrees.

Tony Pollock, director of IDP, Australia’s international development programmes agency, says: "International education is worth $7.8 billion and is Australia’s fourth largest export after coal, iron ore and tourism. It is way larger than commodity exports like wheat and wool."

U.S. may be badly hit

The U.S. is acutely aware that it has most to lose. It still has by far the biggest number of overseas students of any university sector anywhere in the world - 564,766 in 2005, almost as many as the U.K. and Australia combined - but its share of the international student market was severely hit by visa restrictions imposed in the wake of 9/11. It is only just beginning to recover, aided by the efforts of the Institute of International Education which has been working with the State Department to fast-track student visas.

Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice-president of the institute, says: "This is the first time in five years that the decline in overseas student numbers has levelled off. We have had an 8.3 per cent rise in new enrolments and the leading countries of origin are India, China, South Korea, and Japan."

However, when it comes to persuading its own students to study overseas the U.S. falls down. The figure is just 200,000.

The U.K. has had similar problems in encouraging U.K. students to study abroad as part of their degree, but there are signs that this is changing. Providing travel grants, the European Union’s Erasmus programme popularised the notion of spending a year at a European institution but the trend has now become much more widespread, says UCL’s Mark Pickerill.

"Joint honours degrees combining language with business or humanities such as law with French or German promote study abroad," he says.

English-speaking students are also fortunate as many countries are starting to deliver degree courses taught in English. Lack of language ability has always been a barrier for English-speaking students keen to experience life abroad, but the competition now for international students is prompting many countries to offer degrees taught in English. As higher tuition fees in the U.K. begin to bite, that rivalry looks set to intensify.

Across the board, global competition is hotting up. Countries such as China still send huge numbers of students overseas but are also starting to attract international students to campuses in China - over 140,000 international students studied in China in 2005.

Increased higher education provision is also having an impact. For example, China has been building new universities at the rate of one a week, according to the Association of MBAs. This means that Chinese students also have much more choice with many options for a high quality education at home.

Meanwhile, universities in the U.S., U.K., Australia and other European countries are forming joint ventures with local higher education institutions to build and operate campuses overseas. Nottingham University, for example, has set up a campus in Ningbo, China.

Christine Bateman of the British Council warns that U.K. universities cannot expect indefinite growth in numbers of undergraduates from overseas. Ten years ago 39 per cent of overseas students were postgraduates. Today that figure has risen to 49 per cent, partly due to the fact that U.K. masters degrees are shorter than in many other countries.

"We are also finding that more and more overseas students are spending less time in the U.K. Many are choosing to study for one or two years in their own countries before coming to the U.K. to complete the final years of their degree," says Ms. Bateman. "This is one of the reasons why we have seen an expansion in the number of partnerships between institutions in the U.K. and other countries - by working in partnership, universities and colleges can ensure there is a seamless transition. If the UK is to increase international student numbers, providing flexible course delivery is vital." -

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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