Susan Bassnett: Why we need to focus on links and exchanges

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One of the most over-used words in universities right now is "internationalisation". You can't get away from it: whether you are talking about teaching enhancement or research strategy, internationalisation will creep in somewhere. Now Universities UK is about to embark on a review of the challenges posed by what is referred to as the internationalisation agenda. The trouble is, though, that nobody seems to have a very clear idea of what internationalisation means.

For years internationalisation has meant bringing in more high fee-paying overseas students to help balance the books of institutions that are feeling the pinch. In the first five years of the 21st century, overseas student recruitment appeared buoyant, and some universities decided to milk the situation further, branching out into Asia and the Middle East. But there was always a high risk in pinning so much on an overseas market that is proving to be far more volatile than anyone expected. Some universities found they had to axe courses when there was a downturn in the Asian economy, others found student satisfaction ratings plummeting when some degree programmes into ghettoes for students from one particular country. One big Australian university had to shut down its campus in Singapore when student numbers failed to match expectations.

The boom years of overseas student recruitment were in some respects a last blast of the imperial trumpet: come to the UK for the world's best-quality higher education was the mantra, sold by politicians and academics. The chronic underfunding of British universities and the differences in the quality of education across the sector were airbrushed out of the advertising. Moreover, in the scramble to recruit as many fee-paying students as possible, standard entry requirements in some cases were, shall we say, fudged. There was a kind of complacency, born out of the belief that everyone wanted an education in English, and the UK was the best place to give that.

Meanwhile, all kinds of changes were taking place abroad. Where once students from Asia might have chosen to study in the UK or the USA, the highly successful recruiting campaigns of countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand captured ever larger shares of the market. In Europe, the revolution created by the Bologna Process has led to radical rethinking of university curricula, with more innovative undergraduate and new PhD programmes, many of which are taught in English.

Most important, the speed with which higher education systems in countries such as China, Singapore or Malaysia have transformed themselves has improved the quality of their teaching and research beyond any predictions. The difference between some of these countries and the UK is that they are driven by the desire to compete globally, hence the creation of strong international research networks and massive investment in education, in terms of people and infrastructure (see Universities, page 12).

The advent of international league tables throws all these changes sharply in to focus. These tables are often bizarrely idiosyncratic, but they have had the effect of forcing UK universities to broaden their horizons a little. Once placed in an international league table, we don't look quite so good, especially in terms of research, and this is not just down to lack of investment, it is also due to a particular kind of Anglo-Saxon parochialism.

The decision to stop teaching foreign languages in UK secondary schools was a huge mistake. At the very point when we are being exhorted to internationalise, we have turned inwards. While students all over Europe take advantage of transcontinental exchanges, UK students, faced with soaring debts and an inability to communicate except in English, stay at home. As language teaching in schools declines, so the number of UK academics who can lecture and write in more than one language is decreasing even as international competitors become more multilingual.

An internationalisation strategy that is more than just collecting overseas student fees needs to have intercultural exchange and understanding at its heart. We need to build more links with universities around the world, stop being so insular and open our eyes to what other countries are doing and how fast they are moving. The export-only model has had its day, and it's time for the UK to move on.

The writer is a pro vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick