Universities cashing in on the overseas market

Vice-chancellors are seeking new ways of recruiting and priming foreigners for British degrees, says Lucy Hodges
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Earlier this year, John Hood, new vice-chancellor of Oxford, revealed that the university would be cutting back on British students and increasing overseas student numbers. There was much huffing and puffing in the newspapers. This just showed how hard up the universities were, said the critics, that they had to cut back on British numbers to boost the number of those who paid higher fees.

Earlier this year, John Hood, new vice-chancellor of Oxford, revealed that the university would be cutting back on British students and increasing overseas student numbers. There was much huffing and puffing in the newspapers. This just showed how hard up the universities were, said the critics, that they had to cut back on British numbers to boost the number of those who paid higher fees.

The truth, however, is far more complex. Oxford has grown hugely in the past decade. Its staff/student ratio has been stretched to the limit and needs to be improved to ensure that the university is able to recruit the best academics, who are able to do research of international excellence and teach undergraduates. More overseas students are being sought because they make the university a better and more cosmopolitan place. Oxford can recruit the most talented people in the world, so why not try to find more of them?

This new strategy from Britain's oldest university is a sign of what is happening in the marketplace. Ten years ago, higher education was a settled world, set in its ways, publicly funded and serving mainly local students. Competition, customers and profit were dirty words. Today all that has changed with the advent of, first, the flat-rate tuition fee and, now, top-up fees and the booming global market in students.

There are two million students in the world choosing to study outside their home country, and universities are falling over one another to get a share of the $30bn-a-year fee market. Almost all higher-education institutions are competing for talent - both undergraduates and staff - and money. And overseas students are flocking to sign up for British degrees because, on the whole, our higher education system is seen as high quality, giving more individual attention than many students receive on the Continent, and a degree that has currency in the global jobs market.

Although applications from overseas students outside the EU have fallen by 5.3 per cent this year, and Chinese student applications by 25.8 per cent, those from Nigeria have increased by 76.5 per cent. There has also been significant growth in applications from Cyprus and Poland, so the market is seen as pretty buoyant.

British universities are developing new ways to get a slice of the action. Nottingham University, for example, has established its own campus at Ningbo, in China, and Warwick has been asked to look at setting up its own outpost in Singapore, as part of the island's drive to become an education hub. Warwick was invited to open a campus on the island by Singapore's Economic Development Board. "We were flattered," said a Warwick spokesman. "It's a great idea, but before we build a 10,000-person campus, let's see how this fits into our strategy and whether it will work educationally and add up financially."

In the past year, another trend has become apparent. Both Essex and Nottingham Trent universities have formed partnerships with companies abroad that are experts in finding overseas students and preparing them to enter universities in the West. Nottingham Trent has linked with Kaplan, a company that is part of the Washington Post Group in the US. As a result, it has set up Nottingham Trent International College on campus to bring overseas students up to A-level standard and to hone their English skills.

The college, which opens its doors to students in September this year, will focus on students from Asia, the Middle East and Africa who want to study business studies and computing.

Students are able to combine the first year of a Nottingham Trent degree with getting up to scratch for entry to an English university and improving their English. That saves the students money. Until now, such overseas students have been forced to do a foundation course before beginning the first year of an English degree programme.

Kaplan's job is to help the students with the cultural transition they have to make in learning and living styles, while the university will provide much of the teaching. Chinese students, for example, are not used to debating in class. Kaplan will be giving them intensive support so that they can adjust to the requirements of an English university education. Initially, Nottingham Trent expects to enrol 100 students, but that is expected to grow to 1,000. Professor Peter Jones, pro vice-chancellor for research and business development, declined to say how much money the university could make from the partnership.

"I think we will see more of this sort of thing," he said. "Universities in the United Kingdom have to be internationally competitive. Australian universities have become much more attractive to students in recent years through innovative partnerships such as this. We need to do the same."

What the partnership with a specialist company does is to remove the risk and the cost from the university of finding and preparing students - and means that the university has a captive overseas student market. Once they have done their first year at the college, the students are likely to move on to Nottingham Trent for the second year of their degrees.

It also saves time. "We could have got to the same place but it would have taken us three to five years," says Professor Jones.

Essex University is much more gung ho about how much money it stands to make from its partnership. According to a press release put out by Eversheds, the law firm that negotiated the deal, the arrangement with an Australian company called Insearch is worth up to £200m over 20 years. As many as 600 students, both undergraduates and postgraduates, will take courses in English, business, IT communication and design, to allow unqualified overseas students to transfer directly into second-year degree courses.

Glynne Stanfield, Eversheds partner, says: "The University of Essex will receive annual student fees for the second, third and fourth years of overseas students' degree courses, guaranteeing them a huge windfall over the course of the 20-year agreement."

Two other universities have followed this route - with another Australian company, the IBT Group, which has been floated successfully on the Australian stock exchange. They are Brunel University and the University of Hertfordshire. The latter has set up the Hertfordshire International College of Design and Technology, which trains to A-level standard students who can then move on to university degrees.

A company such as IBT can do a better job of international recruitment, says Professor Thomas Hanahoe, Hertfordshire's pro vice-chancellor. That's because they are lean, commercially minded and unbureaucratic, in contrast to academic institutions. "It helps in recruiting and marketing," says Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University. "We're beginning to see for-profit listed public companies moving into what was primarily a not-for-profit area in the past."

Yet another venture is under consideration at University College London, where the University of Texas at Austin is increasing links it already has with the law department. At the moment, 50 American law students come over for a semester to London. Now the partners are looking at setting up an institute of advanced studies on the UCL campus in Bloomsbury. This would be concerned with research and would provide seminars for American and British academics.

These are heady days for the universities. They may complain about being starved of government funding but many are busy seizing every opportunity to reach out to universities and companies abroad.

Foreign students: facts and figures

Although applications from international students are down this year, the latest figures (2003-04) show numbers increasing by 9 per cent to 300,055. If you look closely at these figures, you will see a fall in the numbers from EU countries of 1.1 per cent. Outside Europe, the country sending the largest number of students to the UK is China. Numbers in 2003-04 stood at 47,740. This number has increased by 35.8 per cent since 2002-03. In second position is India, which sends 14,625 students to Britain. The countries after that, in rank order, are the US (13,380), Malaysia (11,805), Hong Kong (10,575) Japan (6,395), Nigeria (5,940), Taiwan (5,710), Pakistan (4,380) and Singapore (3,905). LH