Leading article: Universities, think global

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The Independent Online

Professor Ivor Crewe's speech to the annual meeting of Universities UK managed cleverly to set the agenda for Charles Clarke and to put him on the defensive. For years now the universities have always seemed to be on the defensive as the Government has sought to ginger up university management, introduce a marketplace in higher education, bring in top-up fees, and so on. The universities have agreed more or less grumblingly to go along with it all. Now the boot is on the other foot. The president of UUK produced convincing arguments for a coherent dynamic national policy to promote UK higher education abroad. In fact this is essential because British universities are so dependent on the money brought in by overseas students and the competition they face is so intense. Although we are still Number Two in the world for the number of foreign students we recruit, our share of the market is slipping as countries such as Australia improve their act. We cannot afford for that to continue.

Charles Clarke replied that a paper to be published by the Department for Education and Skills in November on international education would produce a new policy. That sounded a bit like a back-of-the-envelope response, particularly as it seemed to be about preparing British students for life in the global economy rather than selling UK higher education. What Professor Crewe is talking about is a policy across departments that puts overseas students at the top of the agenda and thinks about the consequences of, for example, decisions to increase visa application fees - as happened last year.

But should the Government have to produce a new marketing campaign? The job of promoting British education abroad lies with the British Council. What Crewe didn't say was that university vice-chancellors believe that the British Council doesn't do an energetic enough job of selling universities' wares. Why doesn't UUK seize the nettle, like the Australian universities did, and set up its own outfit to do this job? More to the point, why don't British universities talk to potential foreign students in China, India and Malaysia to find out what they want in terms of teaching, support and facilities. Do international students really want a one-year Master's degree or would they prefer to take two years over it? Unless UK universities undertake some consumer research, the country will continue to lose market share.