Philip Hensher: Why stay at home for the best education?

Are we, in general, stick-in-the-muds? Do students hate abroad, or something?

A body that monitors and encourages academic exchanges across national borders, the Academic Cooperation Association, keeps figures on how many students travel abroad to study. According to these figures, Britain is at the very far end of that particular ratio. For every one British student who goes abroad, 20 foreign students come to the UK to study for a degree.

At the other end of the scale in Europe is Slovakia, where 13 students leave the country for every one who enters. But the astonishing thing is that Britain is not just at one end of the spectrum, but a long way beyond anyone else. The "next worst performers", according to the Times Higher Education Supplement, which reported this story, are Belgium and Sweden. They entertain three times as many foreign students as they export. Britain, with 20 times the number, is a real anomaly.

To say that this situation in Britain represents a "worst performance" is to raise a question. There might be a more optimistic way to read these figures. Perhaps British universities are so obviously the best in Europe that they attract hordes of foreign applicants, and British students feel very little need to go anywhere else. That remains the case despite the fact that foreign students in Britain have always been charged very high fees, and that British students are shortly to be charged up to £9,000 a year. Maybe British universities just are, objectively, the best in Europe from Oxford right down to the University of South-West Rotherham, formerly the Abacus Motoring Academy.

It seems unlikely. But both sides of equation might be explained, overwhelmingly, by one single fact: the English language. From Europe to China, speaking the English language is seen as a sine qua non of modernity. The dream, from Shanghai to Peru, of landing a plum job with a massive multinational will not be fulfilled without two things; a degree in business or international law, and a command of English.

I rather admire those sleek people in their lovely suits and translucent knee-length socks, tapping away at laptops in airport terminals and saying, disconcertingly and untruthfully, "Hi, my name's Gilbert" before you can ask. The formation of a multinational caste, or class, above the rest of us is not quite unprecedented. One thinks of those English merchant-earls who found they had more in common with maharajahs than with English clerks in Calcutta warehouses. Students flock to English universities because they want to belong to the caste of contemporary merchant-princes. And the key is the English language.

The English language is the key, too, to the other side of the equation. Reporting on these figures, the Higher Education Supplement produced a statistic which perhaps is not meant to be quite so hilarious as it is. Seventy-four per cent of UK universities, it seems, now have "staff in place to encourage student mobility and address the imbalance". Well, that is the UK way: appoint more administrative staff. But the reason that British students won't study abroad is quite simple. Astonishingly, as many as 7 per cent of European degree programmes are taught in English. But slightly over 93 per cent, conversely, are not. British students won't go abroad to study because they can't speak the languages. The numbers taking foreign languages at A-level and GCSE have been in free fall for a very long time. There is no point in appointing more staff to advise on academic exchanges to Germany when only a couple of thousand British A-level students take the subject every year.

And yet it may be that the British Government has embarked on the biggest programme to encourage its students to go and study abroad ever imagined. The incentives are absolutely clear. The Government's intention, following the Browne report, is to allow British universities to charge up to £9,000 a year to UK students. There can be no doubt that most universities, perhaps all, will charge the maximum they are allowed to.

There seems to be an assumption at work here, that a British university degree is worth that daunting sum of money in career earnings. Probably some really are – any student embarking on a career in medicine or law can make that elementary calculation. In many other areas of traditional scholarly endeavour, we are about to discover, in the most brutal fashion, how much a British university degree is really worth.

But is it worth so much more than an equivalent European degree? Prospective students can make another elementary calculation. Until now, few British school students have seriously considered taking a degree in a foreign country. The disincentive of most degrees in English-language countries apart from Ireland, that they are far away and often no cheaper, will remain. The disincentives of many European degrees, that teaching is often conducted in very large groups, in foreign languages, may fade against one overwhelming fact. The cost of a degree of comparable standard from excellent institutions will be very much lower. A degree from even the most ancient and distinguished German university will cost a British student very much less.

Is it an unusual instance of joined-up government thinking about education that, just at the point where the cost of a degree is being raised, foreign languages are being placed back at the centre of school education? Michael Gove's plans for a baccalaureate are going to create thousands more foreign-language students at GCSE and, with any luck, at A-level too.

If I were 30 years younger, I would consider the University of Heidelberg, with its excellent English faculty and superb reputation, alongside Oxford at 10 times the price. Education culture changes slowly, and most English students are going to continue to prefer an English university for the immediate future. But we can probably expect that startling statistic – one in 20! – to start to shift. Would such adventurous and bold spirits as go into Europe at this formative period in their lives, be at all likely to return afterwards to benefit us all? Well, we shall find out.