UK students: an increasing target for international study?

Many of the top UK Higher Education institutions are associated with soaring spires, ancient cloisters and beautiful halls, all of which proclaim heritage, power and influence, and of course tradition and the elusive prestige factor. Today’s chosen students have the opportunity to tread the same paths that some of history’s most famous intellectuals did when they were young. For many, both domestically and internationally, all of this is very enticing. But, with higher domestic fees, the lure of international travel, and an increased awareness of international universities, are these esteeemed UK institutions facing a shift in their student composition?

As we have been highlighted in previous posts, there is an increased insecurity about the UK’s place in the higher education landscape, not least because other countries are competing to a greater degree for the international student base that has for many reasons – historical legacy, opportunity, status – come to the UK. But that’s only party of the story.

British students are also beginning to find greater benefits to studying abroad themselves. The new paradigm in higher education – UK students, by dint of the financial demands made of them, now approach HE in a way the sector has never experienced before – means the domestic student market is becoming as demanding as consumers in any other sector. They’re looking for value, not just prestige.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere, as institutions in foreign countries actively promote higher education to British students to take opportunity of these new ‘rules’:

  • The state of South Australia, building on the trend that has seen international students to Australia increase by 500% in a decade, sponsored a ‘roadshow’ by its universities around five big university towns here – York, Manchester, Bristol, London and Birmingham. Amongst its selling points? Lifestyle, tuition fees, and job opportunities.
  • Maastricht University in the Netherlands is offering degrees in English, with tuition fees about half of those charged in the UK. They are also offering cut-price accommodation to UK students. Because of this, the university has reported double the number of applications from UK students this year. Gronigen University has also reported a big rise in UK students applying for (English language) postgraduate courses.
  • The Fulbright Commission, which helps to co-ordinate transatlantic study and promotes the benefits (reputational, occupational etc) of studying in the States, holds US college information days, where attendance is up 50% on last year, whilst UK traffic on its website is up 30% in a year.

Let’s not forget the efforts coming from the UK itself – the British Council actively encourages UK students to take either their undergraduate or postgraduate degree away from these shores. As its director of EU education programmes says: “We would encourage people to study abroad because we can see the great benefits, both on a personal and on a professional level.

“Outwardly mobile” British students will only ever be a tiny fraction of the whole domestic market – and of this group, a large proportion are bound to return to these shores once their studies are completed – so the issue here is not about the UK suffering from some sort of “brain drain”.

But expectations of HE are changing, and how reputations and associations and so on are eroded by events both within and outwith the control of a university.This Arcadian cliché of the ‘town and gown’ university experience now finds itself dealing with its polar opposite – modern, well-equipped campus universities five minutes from the beach, based in countries with growing populations, good weather and dynamic job markets.

A university can only play to its strengths in terms of how it markets itself, but there is a worry that trumpeting heritage and past glories could be perceived as self-satisfication, as complacency – especially considering the fact that Britain is now 15th in the world league table of graduates (according to the OECD). We want to make sure that a university’s reputation can stand toe-to-toe with reality. Damaging the expectations of domestic students can seriously hurt a university’s standing, not to mention the international impact – we don’t want to make those old buildings look like neglected relics rather than desirable places to study.