Surely this is not the best we can be?

Tony Blair wants 75,000 more foreign students by 2005, but complacency in some universities could wreck that target.
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As far as education is concerned, Britain enables you to be "The Best You Can Be", or so claims new literature arriving at British Council offices worldwide. The video and the advertising material - the pamphlets and the posters - are part of a £5m campaign by the British Government to sell British education to the world.

A recent trip to China left Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded of the benefits of recruiting increased numbers of overseas students. Not only do they pay full fees, and hence bring valuable revenue to UK institutions, but they also often return to positions of authority in their own countries, taking with them lasting ties to the UK.

The Government is therefore hoping to persuade more overseas students to abandon plans for university study at home, and instead to join the 200,000 or so students already at UK higher education institutions.

But Britain - currently the second most popular Anglophone destination for international, non European Union, higher education students - faces tough competition as it tries to spread its hold.

The US is king when it comes to recruiting international students. In 1998/99 it welcomed almost 491,000 overseas students to its universities, who injected, according to the US Institute of International Education, around US$7bn into the US economy. America plays host, according to the British Council, to a remarkable 68 per cent of overseas, non EU, higher education students, putting both the UK (17 per cent) and the other major world player Australia (10 per cent) rather in the shadows.

Canada, the other main Anglophone competitor, has an estimated five per cent of the market. For the past two decades the main players - and their respective universities - have been carving out niches and fighting for markets in what has perhaps become the main battleground for overseas students, East Asia.

Colonial, military, economic and migration links have helped determine which national provider has traditionally been successful in each country. Malaysia, a former British colony, sent around 14,000 students to the UK in 1998/99 and a further 14,000 to much nearer Australia, while the US - which pumps considerably more resources into overseas recruitment and offers more scholarships - managed to recruit 13,500 from Malaysia in the same year.

The UK and Australia have similarly strong performances in Singapore (according to the British Council, Australia 10,000, UK 6,000 and US 3,500 in 1998), but the US more than dominates in more northerly Asian countries such as China (US 47,000, UK 2,800, according to the Australian Education International, 1997/98), Japan and South Korea. Australia has been able to carve considerable market share particularly in those countries - such as Malaysia - which saw, in the Seventies and Eighties, large-scale migration to Australia. Extended families in Australia have encouraged Malaysians to send their children overseas in search of a first-rate education.

On the ground, each provider country has established sophisticated, multi-pronged approaches to capture the available students. The UK has the British Council and its marketing arm, the Education Counselling Service, working throughout the region promoting UK education, while individual universities attend local trade fairs, some temporarily setting up offices in the region to further promote their name. Similar strategies are employed by the Australians, who also have a separate organisation - IDP Education Australia - owned by the universities to promote their image.

Some universities, such as Australia's Monash, have gone as far as setting up whole campuses in their target markets, in this case Malaysia, while others offer assisted distance learning for students who wish to remain in their home countries, but want to study an overseas degree.

The British Council claims assured quality and compact degrees make the UK a particularly attractive option for overseas students. "Malaysians prefer the UK and Australian institutions," explains Ian Tan, the UK's Education Counselling Service's manager in Kuala Lumpar, "because the universities are government funded, so there is a measure of quality. This is particularly the case with the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK.

"With the US, unless you go to an Ivy League university, you don't really know whether your qualification will be as well recognised," Tan explained. Students can do a degree with honours in just three years in the UK, compared to a minimum of four in Australia. That makes the UK more attractive, particularly now overseas students in Britain are allowed to work while studying. He suggests that, in Malaysia, the UK and Australia are taking market share from America.

But not all agree the UK's future is quite so rosy. John Grote, the director of the British Council in Singapore, warns the UK risks complacency. The Singaporean government, he claims, is eager to raise the profile of America as a potential destination, while Australian universities have been aggressively marketing in the region. "There's a government-led initiative here that shows the US as an exciting place to study," says Grote. "The UK is not portrayed in the same way. While UK numbers are still pretty good, we are now being outflanked on one hand by the Singaporean government wishing to increase links with the US, and on the other by Australia's willingness to adjust products and work to meet demand. The UK risks falling behind if it doesn't act."

On top of this, the recent economic crisis in Asia, as well as questions over the quality of some offshore provision and suggestions of people smuggling to Australia under the auspices of student visas, have sent more than a shiver through the burgeoning industry.

Asian student markets to Britain and America were badly affected in 1998 by the Asian currency crisis. The Malaysian market to Britain, for example, slumped by 15 per cent that year. Australia, though increases in student numbers failed to keep up with earlier years, seems to haveridden the storm better, says Tan, perhaps because of its relatively weaker currency and seemingly cheaper provision.

Though student numbers from Asia appear again to be on the rise, questions are being asked about the over-reliance of an industry on one economic region. Around 87 per cent of Australia's enrolment of foreign students are from Asia, while around 20 per cent of the UK's are from East Asia (around 37 per cent of non EU students), and 57 per cent of US student arrivals come from the region.

"A number of people after the Asian crisis think we should diversify," explains Rebecca Cross, the chief executive officer of the Australian Education International, the Australian government body responsible for overseas students. "The fact that a whole region can be affected by one country's economy has left institutions looking elsewhere."

Talk of potential new markets in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, the Indian sub continent and Russia abound, while no one is dispelling the importance of China with its vast population.

The growth of the internet and on-line communication has left others to contemplate a changed future where rather than talking of untapped geographic markets, it instead becomes financially viable to serve smaller numbers in diverse geographic areas. In a recent survey of US universities, almost 60 per cent of respondents foresaw a threat to American dominance from global communications.

While they suggest the number of foreign students on US campuses may fall, they agree there will be substantial opportunities for US institutions to develop programmes that produce a new generation of online graduates. Then the battle might really hot up.