Education: What price a degree?

Our universities may fall down in their scramble to lure foreign students.
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TAP INTO the website of the British Council in Malaysia and you will find an amazing array of special offers from universities in the United Kingdom. The University of Hertfordshire tempts students with a single fee of pounds 4,800 for all courses - which appears to undercut most of its rivals. Students who paid early - by 15 May this year - were offered a special bargain price in Malaysian currency. And, to cap it all, the early payers were further enticed with a free annual university bus pass, value pounds 70.

Scroll down the list to Plymouth University and you can find lower prices still. Laboratory-based subjects - the sciences and engineering - which cost, say, pounds 8,500 to overseas students at old universities - are being offered for pounds 4,480 at Plymouth. The classroom-based courses, such as the arts and humanities, are slashed to pounds 3,840 a year. With prices like these, who can resist such bargains?

The university marketing men are currently swarming into the Far East. The collapse of the Asian tiger economies and the devaluations of their currencies has led to a noticeable drop in the numbers of overseas students applying to study in the UK. And now British universities are falling over themselves to make sure that they do not lose any more of these lucrative students than they have to.

Encouraged by the Malaysian and British governments and motivated by enlightened self-interest, they have come up with an appealing assortment of financial inducements to persuade South-East Asian families that it is still worth shelling out for a British education. Some of the tactics they use sail perilously close to puffery, and would do credit to the hungriest ice-cream salesman.

The University of Northumbria at Newcastle, for example, lists "value for money tuition fees" as well as a free "Meet and Greet" service, a free induction programme, free student support, free learning support and free access to IT facilities. British students know that all UK universities provide such services free. Malaysians may not.

Iain Bride, director of international relations at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist), takes a dim view of many of the tactics that are now being used. They are irresponsible, he suggests. He has nothing against scholarships on academic merit, such as the ones awarded under the British government's scheme. But he is concerned about special offers for one year because students might thereby be lured on to degree programmes which they later find they cannot afford. "Who knows what things might be like in a year's time?" he says. "They may be worse."

As an old university with a glittering reputation, Umist does not have to practise a hard sell. For example, it is not participating in the clearing fairs that are currently taking place in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. At these fairs, universities with spare places make offers to overseas students when their A-level results come out. "I fear that this year we will see a lot of `I can make you a better offer than so and so', or `Come to the university of X and we can knock pounds 2,000 off tuition fees'," predicts Dr Bride.

Universities engaging in the hard sell defend their practices, and the British Council says that the vast majority of special offers benefit overseas students. "No one knows what's going to happen in the Far East," says a British Council spokesman. "It's to no one's advantage to persuade foreign students to come here if they can't afford to stay."

A spokeswoman for the University of Hertfordshire said that its fee package was welcomed by the Malaysian government. And she added that its offer of a free bus pass to early payers was a genuine and useful incentive in a university where each campus is an average of 11 miles away from the next.

Maurice Dimmock, head of international relations at the University of Northumbria, denied that it was misleading to claim a string of free services, when all British universities offered them free.

"A lot of overseas families think that they have to pay for these things," he explained. "We're competing with the United States and Australia, and those two countries are known for quoting lower course fees to attract students who find they then have to pay a registration fee, a lab fee and other fees. This is an attempt to tell parents that our charge is all-inclusive."

Kent University, which is offering a pounds 1,000 reduction to all new and returning students, says Dr Bride is off the mark in his criticism. "He's completely wrong," says Richard de Friend, pro vice chancellor. "I resent the suggestion that we're behaving irresponsibly. Everything we have done in relation to our existing students was geared to helping them to stay here and not give up their courses. New students can calculate for themselves what the currency fluctuations are going to be."

For years, the Government has been telling universities to behave like businesses. It is therefore not surprising, perhaps, that they are heeding the advice and finding that selling their courses is not so very different from selling baked beans.