Universities: UK fails international test

The naked self-interest of British higher education institutions in the overseas student market is backfiring. Critics say more internationalist values will be good for people - and for business. Lucy Hodges reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Western Uganda is by anyone's standards a disadvantaged part of the world. The scenery is awesome - lakes, volcanoes and the fabled Ruwenzori Mountains, the highest in Africa, first sighted by Stanley in 1876 and dubbed Mountains of the Moon. But its economy is ragged and its education system is on its knees after the depredations of Idi Amin.

Now, however, an attempt is being made to set up a private university there to train primary school teachers in the first instance and eventually to train other experts in agriculture, horticulture, business and public health and administration.

Called Mountains of the Moon University and situated in Fort Portal, it is desperate for cash and for volunteer staff. Universities in the United Kingdom may be struggling but it is difficult to compare their plight with that of a university with 140 students, a big deficit and where a consignment of 300 books from the UN is a cause for celebration.

"A few million dollars would totally transform the situation, even a few hundred thousand would make a profound difference," says Patrick Davey, vice chancellor. The university believes it is vital to establish links with other universities around the world if it is to develop. Staff exchanges are needed to teach undergraduates and to generate high quality curricula and teaching materials.

These exchanges need to last a minimum of six months to have a real effect. It is hoped that this is going to happen with the UK government's decision to set up an Africa unit in London to foster links between universities in Britain and their counterparts in Africa.

British universities are depressingly short of an international dimension. A recent survey undertaken by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education found that only about half of 133 higher education institutions have an international strategy that they make available online. That is either because they regard their strategy as confidential or because they don't have one.

Institutions that have an international strategy tend to concentrate their energies on internationalisation abroad and recruitment of overseas students to boost coffers, says the report.

Much less emphasis is put on internationalisation at home, such as giving the curriculum more of an international flavour and making both the campus and the student experience more international.

Moreover, there is very little engagement with the Bologna process, the European Union initiative to harmonise degrees across the Continent. "It is almost as though British higher education is taking the money and running," says Professor Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London, one of the few UK universities to have thought through the global dimensions of what it does and to have set up research partnerships in Africa.

"The real issue is how can we make a contribution internationally and how do we educate our students in issues such as global citizenship and social justice."

The report from the Leadership Foundation shows that British higher education is less active in offshore partnerships and campuses than its Australian counterparts. All Australian universities are reported to be involved in such endeavours. Some leading institutions in Britain are not.

Information on the offshore partnerships of UK universities and colleges is limited because it is not posted on websites and there is no official documentation of international collaboration. By contrast, the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee and New Zealand Ministry of Education record such things.

Another area where the UK may be slipping competitively is in the emphasis given to monitoring the quality of courses. The Australians have put money into keeping tabs on the quality of offshore operations but the Department for Education and Skills in Britain has done nothing. Australian vice chancellors have a code of practice for educational provision for overseas students, but there is no UK equivalent.

According to Professor Robin Middlehurst, of Surrey University and director of strategy and research at the Leadership Foundation, Britain has a reputation abroad for having a commercial approach to internationalisation. "That is fine if there is concern for international students and care in recruitment. But it is also seen by some countries who are exporting their students as commercial exploitation," he says.

Lack of attention paid to internationalising the curriculum in Britain is worrying, says the report. "In an interconnected, globalised world, graduates lacking international experience and knowledge of other cultures, languages, intellectual traditions and ways of thinking could be at a competitive disadvantage."

Dominic Scott, director of Ukcosa, the overseas students' organisation, agrees. One in four British students will work in a global business or an international environment, he says. So, universities need to offer them something wider and deeper than they do now. "Bringing a lot of Chinese students on to the campus is not going to do anything for UK students - it's only touching them at the margins."

Teaching and learning in Britain remains firmly based on English-speaking practices and does not integrate foreign approaches. Difficulties faced by overseas students are attributed to cultural differences and are seen as problems to be "fixed" by study skills courses and English-language teaching.

Perhaps more important is the failure by British universities and colleges to integrate overseas students into campus life and the local community, leading to their social isolation.

"It is well known that international students of certain nationalities who study at UK higher education institutions in large numbers often spend time exclusively with their fellow nationals," says the report. This is often because of where they are housed or as a result of little effort by the university and students' union to organise social events.

These students return home having had a bad experience of British higher education. All this matters more than ever because UK universities have been failing to meet international student targets.

There is increasing competition from France, Germany and the Netherlands as well as from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, which are aiming to become higher-education "hubs" for South-east Asia. Foreign universities are increasingly opening up branch campuses or franchising in the UK, which means fewer overseas students for British universities. Yet the focus on international students is exactly what the critics say has led to an imbalance in the priorities of British universities.

"What's lacking is a commitment to internationalism rather than internationalisation," says Colin Bundy, director and principal of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. "Internationalism is a value that celebrates and transcends national identity."

In other words, it is a value, not a business stream, and has to be in the lifeblood of a university. The critics hope phase two of the Prime Minister's initiative on overseas students, due shortly, will embrace this definition. Then institutions such as the Mountains of the Moon University may get the links they need with universities and colleges in Britain.