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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam