Whatever happened to the global race in education?

Tomorrow's graduates will compete against an ever growing number of exceptionally qualified overseas students. Better policy can help prepare them for that

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The Independent Online

As Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, warned, tough public rhetoric is deterring foreign students from applying to UK universities. The most recent statistics on student visas showed a 26% fall from the previous year. Continuing the insular trend in higher education, British students are becoming less inclined to study non-European modern languages. Applications for these fell more than a fifth between 2011 and 2012.

Both of these changes matter. The most obvious benefit of foreign students is that they pay more – and up front. The more overseas students there are, the more they can subsidise bursaries for British students and fund universities’ research. Labour’s opposition to the continued inclusion of international students in the coalition's net migration targets recognises this reality.

No less significant are the subtler benefits of welcoming foreign students. Their presence provides one of the most effective ways for British students to engage with the world. Foreign students inject money into the economy and forge lasting cultural ties. They also provide a way to combat Britain’s skills shortages, such as an estimated dearth of 217,000 engineers by 2017. Maintaining Britain’s reputation for housing the world’s best universities also gives the country global prestige. Policies that clamp down on immigrants by encouraging talented foreign students to study in America, China, Germany and elsewhere amount to damaging short-term populism.

Such thinking has been compounded by the government’s attitude towards the study of non-European modern languages. These are too often treated as quaint pursuits – interesting, perhaps, but ultimately about as relevant to the global race as archaeology. The reality is that they include Arabic and Chinese, languages that will underpin the 21 Century global economy.

Yet the government seems to retain a dangerous Anglocentricism where languages are concerned. Of the 30 subject group blocks identified by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, ‘Non-European Languages and related’ are the least popular among students, with fewer than 7,000 people having applied to study them this year. Most worrying of all, applications to study these fell 21.5% from 2011 figures – the greatest drop of any of the 30 subject groups.

The government’s implementation of tuition fee rises recommended in the Browne Review can politely be described as controversial. But in some respects they took too little notice of it. The Browne Review mentioned the importance of “additional and targeted investment by the public” for “strategically important language courses”. However this has not been translated into ensuring that the university uptake of languages such as Chinese and Arabic matches Britain’s needs. Creative policies are required – for instance, £500 a year could be shaved off annual tuition fees for these courses, contingent upon students obtaining at least a 2.1.

Such a measure may seem a luxury at a time when benefits are being cut. The reality is that, as with encouraging the best foreign students to study here, it would be an investment in Britain’s ability to compete in the global race. Populism may be superficially attractive. It cannot be allowed to trumpet long-term vision.