Glyn Davis: How English made our universities the most popular in the world

The number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship had approximately doubled each 15 years since 1975. According to OECD figures, English-speaking countries had 45 per cent of the international student market in 2006. Australia was on 6 per cent, and the UK on 11 per cent. So what explains the success of such countries in the international student market?

This is a story that starts several hundred years ago, as English colonists and traders began to spread far beyond Europe, into the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. They created several new English-speaking countries and made English the language of local elites in many other places. High international student enrolments are in part a late legacy of England's colonial past.

English has been spread further by the cultural and business empire of one of those former British colonies, the United States. In the twentieth century, doing global business meant dealing with the US, and as the labour market has globalised, English has become the language to have.

It is not just that major importers of people are English speaking. It is that multinational companies based elsewhere use English as their common language of communication. American popular culture has found large audiences around the world. Getting on in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has increasingly required knowing how to speak, write and read English, and this has been to the great benefit of universities in English-speaking countries.

The place of English in global affairs means that universities in English-speaking countries are likely to enjoy some enduring advantages. While speakers of Asian languages are producing and consuming a growing share of world economic output, no Asian language is likely to replace English as the global lingua franca soon. Indeed, the large numbers of people within Asia learning English, or coming to the West to learn English, without any corresponding trend among non-native speakers to learn Asian languages, are only entrenching English's position as the world's second language.

This is no cause for complacency. The familiar world will melt away in the decades ahead. But Western universities start from a position of strength.

Glyn Davis, Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, was speaking at King's College London on Tuesday