Britain is becoming the world's most popular destination for overseas students

Lucy Hodges looks at the reasons why they brave the red tape and dodgy climate
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The Independent Online

Despite its food and weather, Britain is beginning to topple America from its position as the most popular place for overseas students to study, according to a survey published today.

Prospective students from around the world reckon the UK is safer than the United States, has respected higher education institutions and, amazingly given the complaints about British immigration control, is easier to get a visa to study in, says the survey from the International Graduate Insight Group (i-graduate).

The study is welcomed by the higher education world, which has in recent years been anxious that the number of overseas students coming to the UK was levelling off and the country was losing market share to countries like Australia – and might start to lose out in the precious £60bn international student market.

"Given that the reputation of British universities is high and that overseas students have a good experience in the UK, that gives international students the sense that they are getting value for money," says Professor Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK and principal of King's College London.

"I have been president of UUK for six months and I have been to Belgium, France, China and India. The dominant impression I have had is of the high standing of British universities and the regard in which they are held."

The survey into the perceptions of more than 11,000 overseas students from 143 countries is translating into an increase in student numbers on the ground. New statistics from Ucas this month show a rise in applicants of nearly 8 per cent. That is expected to boost numbers of international students in Britain to well above the last count of 385,000.

And new figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show an increase of 12 per cent in students between 2005-06 and 2006-07. That figure includes both undergraduates and postgraduates.

The study from i-graduate shows that safety is the key factor for international students when choosing where to study. The safety issue is not just about street crime, according to Tim Andradi, chief executive of the London School of Commerce, a private college in the capital. "Since 9/11 the US has been seen as less safe," he argues. "If you are from a Muslim country, you will think twice about going to the USA because it is not seen as so welcoming now, whereas the position in Britain hasn't changed. "

After the attack on the twin towers in New York, the US publicly tightened its visa policy, making it harder for overseas students to get into the States. That had a visible effect on the number of international students attending American universities and affected the perceptions about America around the globe. Since then, the US has relaxed its controls, but perceptions have yet to catch up with the reality, according to Dominic Scott, director of the UK Council for International Student Affairs.

But he, and others, do not believe the Americans will be shifted from their position as the nation with the largest number of overseas students – or not yet, at any rate – because of the generous scholarships and bursaries on offer at US institutions. "When people are making their final decision about where to go, the playing field is not level," says Scott. "I am delighted to see that the UK is as attractive, if not more so, than the USA, but there is still a sizeable cost sensitivity."

Both Britain and the US are seen as expensive by overseas students. In the UK the strength of the pound sterling doesn't help, making the cost of living one of the highest in the world. In America, the cost of living is lower but fees are higher. To entice the cleverest students in, US institutions offer bursaries and scholarships on a scale that is not available in Britain.

Will Archer, director of I-graduate, thinks that UK institutions are missing a trick. "Some British universities are more active than others," he says. "But there's more work to be done to understand price sensitivity. Most institutions will have bursaries of some kind but the extent will vary hugely."

The survey suggests that the Prime Minister's Initiative, launched by Tony Blair, to attract more overseas students to Britain appears to be working. This initiative involved action on a number of fronts and included streamlining entry procedures for bona fide students seeking to enter Britain, giving them more help in filling in their visa forms and marketing British higher education better abroad.

Although the survey shows that the UK is seen as an easier place in which to obtain a student visa than America, it is by no means a pushover. Other countries – China, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – are seen as easier to get into than Britain.

"We are pleased with the growth we are seeing and we think this is because of the measures taken over the past few years," says Pat Killingley, director of education and UK marketing at the British Council. "But the factors that we believe are really important to students overseas are the quality of their degree, its portability and the employment prospects once they have finished."

The survey shows that employability is the area where Britain falls down most when compared with other countries. The UK is seen as the hardest place in which to get work as an overseas student after your degree. That has been mainly because the rules prevented overseas students from working in Britain; at the moment they are allowed to work in the UK for a year after graduation but that is being extended to two years towards the end of March 2008 – and the hope is that this change will boost overseas student numbers.

British employers need to be made aware that the rules are changing, say the experts. "UK industry is going to lose out on global talent if it doesn't take advantage of this," says Scott. "There is going to be considerable disenchantment if international students are told they can stay on and work – and then find that they can't get jobs. It will backfire. If they find themselves working at McDonald's doing the washing up, they won't get the deal they were expecting."

'In England the educational structure is similar to ours'

Chinwe Chidobem is a Nigerian who completed her one-year MBA at the University of Bedfordshire in Luton in the summer of 2007.

"I chose to do my MBA in England largely for reasons of cost and time. I thought about going to America because of family there, but I realised I would have to spend more time studying. The MBA takes two years in the USA instead of one year here. That makes a big difference. If you consider that fees are $20,000 a semester at a good American school and you have to do four semesters, that is a lot more than the £9,000 tuition I paid at the University of Bedfordshire.

Also I felt it would be easier for me in England because the educational structure and language (British English rather than American English) are similar to ours. It was definitely worth it and I think I made the right choice. What I found particularly useful was the experience of the other MBA students on the programme. They were people who had started their own business or had financial or human resource problems where they had worked before. We talked about them extensively and how they could be resolved. I am now working for e-FM, a financial management company in Luton, but I plan to return to Nigeria to the banking industry. I would eventually like to set up my own business back home in four years' time."

Setu Havner, 22, is an Indian who got a first degree and a Masters in India and is studying for a PhD in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

"I am doing a doctorate in visual cognition and I chose Birmingham because it is particularly good for the subject. Since childhood I have been fascinated by Europe, which is one reason why I came to the UK. I have a scholarship from the UK/Indian Education and Research Initiative, which covers living costs and fees. I couldn't have come without it. But it was a tough decision because all my friends went to the US where there are more scholarships.

The reason that Indians want to come to Britain is the quality of the higher education. I feel this country is safe but it is expensive. I am spending £500 a month in a hall of residence. After my PhD I hope to stay on for one or two years as a post-doc."

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