Imbalance in British Study Abroad

June 4, 2010

Two years after a report to the British government warned that its universities were seen to be treating international students as a “cash cow,” the sector is still taking but not giving, a new analysis warns.

The message from the head of the British Council echoes a 2008 report by Sir Drummond Bone, former vice chancellor of the University of Liverpool, which said the perception that internationalization was “just about making money” for universities in the United Kingdom could threaten the sector’s reputation overseas.

Martin Davidson, the British Council’s chief executive, said that there was still a 25:1 imbalance in the number of British students choosing to study abroad, compared with those coming to the U.K.

He said that about 500,000 international students come to the U.K. each year, while the flow in the other direction was between 15,000 and 20,000.

Of those who do venture overseas from British universities, the majority are studying a modern language, he added.

Approximately 40 percent of British students taking part in Erasmus, a European Union student exchange program, are linguists, compared with 5 percent of those participating in the program from other countries.

Speaking at a Council for Industry and Higher Education meeting at the London School of Economics last week, Davidson said that more must be done to make student mobility an integral part of U.K. universities’ relationships with their international partners.

“We have a serious problem in the mismatch between the number of British students who are prepared to go overseas and those who come here,” he said.

“It’s clear our international partners value their U.K. education; it’s less clear that U.K. students value an international education.”

Davidson said that a “language deficit” was inhibiting British students, but that it was up to both businesses and universities to prove the value of a semester abroad.

“The U.K. may soon be the very last monolingual culture in the world. We would argue that’s a serious deficit in the education system for our young people.

“Without people who are comfortable working in an international context, the U.K.’s international influence is bound to decline over time,” he said.

The British Council, echoing a statement it issued in March, advised universities to consider what kind of study abroad experience would attract more U.K. students to sign up.

Caroline Gipps, vice chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said appetite for its Chinese study program was healthy because it reflected student interests.

At the time that his report was published in 2008, Drummond predicted that the problem would be a difficult one to solve.

“There are various ways of skinning that cat, but it is a difficult cat to skin,” he said.

Universities UK said the sector was working to address the imbalance, with institutions investigating the appeal of sandwich courses and shorter placements.

But a spokesman also said that universities had to play a role in equipping young people with the language skills that would enable them to study overseas.

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