Let's open the doors

Britain has lost out from the decline in the number of Commonwealth students. Both Britain and developing nations would reap handsome dividends if the ties were rebuilt, says Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler
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Many Commonwealth countries in the Third World inherited further and higher education institutions based on the British models, which have survived almost unchanged from the first half of this century.

Concentrating as they have on either traditional academic education or vocational training, many such institutions have not adjusted to the contemporary requirement of employers for higher qualifications in management and applied technologies, which are essential to their economic growth. Consequently, some of the poorest countries now have large pools of unemployed arts graduates and insufficiently skilled technicians.

Until 1980, the educational, cultural, economic and political links between Britain and the Commonwealth were greatly enhanced by the availability of grants for overseas students. Those enabled cohorts of able students, even from the poorest countries, to study in Britain and, on their return home, to provide intellectual leadership in a wide range of legal, governmental, academic, media and commercial institutions, which were themselves based on the British models.

Although the number of full-time and sandwich students in Britain from Commonwealth countries has increased between 1982 and 1995, the percentage has fallen from 53 per cent to 31 per cent of the total. Within these figures, moreover, both numbers and percentages from the poorest countries in Africa and Asia appear to have fallen even more dramatically.

The decline can be attributed to Britain's relatively high fees, the cessation of grants for overseas students in 1980 and the generous aid- funded support available from other English-speaking countries, notably Australia and the United States and, during the Cold War, from Communist countries in Europe and Asia. Consequently, it can be said that the Thatcher years saw a damaging loss of British cultural influence in the contemporary professional and leadership cadres of all too many of the poorer Commonwealth countries.

Labour's manifesto commitment to shift aid resources to help the poorest people in the poorest countries is generally very welcome. I urge Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, to give particular attention to Britain's capacity in the fields of FE and HE, in which she has the potential to contribute so much to the development of enlightened leadership in those countries.

The restoration of aid-funded grants for overseas students, in carefully selected categories of course, could provide an instant boost to standards in some Third World countries and bring cultural and financial benefit to our own colleges and universities. However, there is much more that those institutions could contribute towards international development, with similarly mutual benefits.

Only the British, with our gift for self-denigration and our penchant for intellectual snobbery, could fail both to appreciate the high reputation overseas of the whole range of British FE and HE and to exploit the enormous potential for our FE colleges and for our new, former polytechnic universities to contribute to urgently-needed reforms of FE and HE in many Commonwealth countries.

Recent British experience, at a time of rising demand and falling grant aid, of the management of change; resource management and quality-assurance systems; curriculum development; course franchising; bridging education; distance learning techniques; postgraduate, professional and vocational qualifications and continuing professional development are all particularly relevant to many English-speaking Third World countries.

It is also, sadly, my experience that although many of the relevant departments of government in Britain have able individuals anxious to help British institutions to identify and exploit opportunities overseas, such is the lack of management structures and systems to facilitate efficient interdepartmental working that co-ordinated effort is almost wholly absent. Furthermore, I have also encountered situations overseas where the High Commission, the British Council and the Overseas Development Administration were barely on speaking terms, let alone able seriously to promote the interest of a British university making a huge investment in exploiting its potential to contribute towards the development of FE and HE in the country concerned.

For the governments of many developing countries, recognising both the need for FE and HE reform and the ability of a British institution to devise and help to implement appropriate action, the major constraint is shortage of funds. In those circumstances, British institutions need dedicated support on the ground to identify the availability of British aid funds, or in their absence funds from other aid donors such as the World Bank, the European Development Fund or the various regional development banks. It is my experience that the availability of executive assistance in our government's overseas institutions is both insufficient and unable to provide the dedicated support necessary.

In order to exploit these opportunities and to facilitate the fuller participation of the most appropriate British institutions in that activity, government action is urgently needed. Perhaps most important is the need for co-ordination between the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Education and Employment and the British Council. More efficient procedures must be developed to gather and distribute more detailed statistics and other market information; to support proactively both in the UK and overseas appropriate individual institutions on well-targeted and highly focused overseas missions; and generally to facilitate the identification and capture of a larger share of international, aid-funded, education projects.

I hope the forthcoming White Paper on international development and the Dearing report will start this necessary process of change and that the Government will appoint a Cabinet subcommittee to carry the process forward.

At the same time, British universities and colleges, especially the new universities, whose courses generally have particular relevance to the needs of developing economies, must also become more proactive. It is essential that they devote more dedicated and professional resources to planning, promoting and managing their international activities in an efficient, sustainable and cost-effective way.

The writer is a management consultant specialising in the marketing of further and higher education for international development. He is a former Member of Parliament and an honorary fellow of the Institute of Development Studies.