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On Killing Geese


I have recently been advising overseas research students from a local university who are having to pay extra to receive basic IT, data analysis and research teaching. It appears that in the ‘dash for cash’, universities have quintupled their intake but proportionately decreased the support they offer to research students.

The Golden Egg

The revenues that come to the UK from overseas postgraduate students are enormous. Not only in our current account but also because they they build ‘trusted advisor’ relationships for the future. Yet, we are in danger of losing these benefits because universities simply can’t see these students as anything other than inconvenient units of cost.

There are 250,000 non-EU overseas students in UK universities. They contribute £4bn a year in fees – more than 8% of the total income of UK universities – plus several further billions that students bring to the local economy in board, lodging and discretionary spending.

You would think that the institutions they attend would take care of these valuable students from the very moment they arrive.

Poor Hospitality

Arriving unmet at a bleak British airport, foreign students often find themselves without accommodation for the first nights of their stay because they had the temerity to arrive after 4.30pm, when the university office closes. They are forced to stay in hi-cost, low grade bed-and-breakfast until they can be shown their rooms. This is a common experience for overseas students, yet one so easily avoided.

I have been an international student. It is a great privilege and adventure to pursue postgraduate studies in another country, of course, but it is also daunting and every little bit of support is greatly appreciated. As a recent report put it: “… international students value those universities which have a broader view of internationalisation and see students not only in economic terms.”

Benefits to the Economy

This is important. 50% of masters’ students in the UK and 44% of doctoral students are international students. They come to the UK because of the reputation of our traditional universities. Treated well, they will recommend us to generations of their brightest and best students. If they are neglected and abused, on the other hand, they will spend those billions elsewhere: in the US, Australia or other non-English-speaking countries.

But these students are getting a raw deal. Universities seem happy to take their cash but unhappy to provide them with a basic welcome or personal support they deserve.

Lack of Academic Support

Yet the tragedy is that the students who come here are not getting the quality of academic service they deserve either.

Since the abolition of polytechnics in Britain, there have been a number of ‘universities’ that are that in name alone. They have little or no research tradition and few support structures in place to provide for research students’ social and academic needs. Yet, these institutions are recruiting overseas students for British higher education at cut-price rates. The students come and then receive little or no support during the course of their studies.

World Famous…in England

Academics often fall into the trap of believing their own publicity. Actually, our universities aren’t such fabulous places. There are many, many across the world where students will be better prepared and better treated than they are here.

My old boss used to say “These postgrads nowadays don’t know they’re born. I only saw my supervisor three times: when I started, at transfer and before my viva.” That was then, I suppose. This is now.

Thankfully, research support for postgraduate work has changed since then. That is to say, what we expect a student to receive in terms of research training, office accommodation and ICT is far more sophisticated than a dozen years ago. Sadly, this is not true in all cases and some UK universities still fail adequately to assist their overseas students.

We have to start providing properly for our overseas students. Allowing them to return home with only tales of woe from the UK means that we risk losing the connections and the contracts which flow from the relationships of trust that start here.

Shooting the Goose?

At Imperial College London, students from outside the European Union enrolling on undergraduate degrees in the sciences this autumn will pay up to £20,400 each year in fees, while Oxford University’s master’s in business administration, will set overseas students back a cool £34,000 per year.

This is serious money. Shouldn’t we be providing our overseas academic visitors with proper hospitality and absolutely excellent support? The repercussions for the UK economy and higher education are potentially grave if we fail to do so.

Sources: The Guardian 14 Oct 2009 & 16 March 2010

From → Education, Policy

One Comment
  1. I see that, since 2000, the UK has slipped from 3rd to 15th place in OECD graduation rates. Over a period of monumental change in university recruitment, the standing of our university education system has plummeted.
    Could this be because our political leaders thought that they could simply throw ill-prepared youngsters into universities that could not support them in the hope that they would stick it out? The high drop-out rates might be a clue…
    Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD’s indicators and analysis division, said: “Fewer people with qualifications will mean a less successful economy… For many years the UK was very much at the forefront of higher education provision. But now you do not see that competitive advantage.”

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