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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2005

Globalization Focuses on Bread not Brains

Frank Furedi
One of the benefits of working in a university is that you are likely to meet interesting people from all over the world. The fact that more than 25 per cent of students at my institution - the University of Kent - are from abroad enhances my experience as an academic. As a lecturer, I value the contribution that these students make to campus life. Many of them worked hard to get here. They are often a self-selected bunch, highly motivated and full of interesting insights. I can usually rely on them to give seminar discussions that extra special international dimension. Their very presence confirms the simple point that a genuine university thrives through the global exchange of ideas.

Unfortunately, there are strong pressures to regard students from abroad not as members of our academic community but as either potential spongers or as a source of untapped income. Recently there has been discussion in the press about the likely growth in the numbers of east European students coming to UK universities once their countries have become full members of the EU. A report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute claimed that by the end of the decade something like 20- 30,000 students from east European countries would be studying here. Sections of the media reacted to this prediction by raising fears about the possibility of home students losing their university places to these foreign interlopers. "University invasion by new EU States" was the headline of one newspaper article warning of the impending flood of foreign eggheads.

Parochial concern about foreign students taking advantage of the facilities of British universities coexists with attitudes that regard them as highly welcome cash cows - as long as they come from outside the EU. Since there are no limits imposed on fees from non-EU students, those from overseas represent a nice little earner for UK University Plc. Undergraduate fees of £7,000-9,000 are common and postgraduates are forced to cough up a lot more. That is why universities are investing considerable resources in the global higher education market. Overseas recruitment has grown by about 6 per cent a year since 1999. A study by the British Council predicts that by 2020, the number of overseas students seeking to study at British universities could triple to 850,000 - but only if UK University Plc can see off competition from countries such as the United States, Australia, India and Malaysia. The market for English language based university programmes is so lucrative that even German institutions have entered this market and offer courses in English.

The global marketization of higher education is unlikely to have positive consequences for the university system. British universities are already under considerable domestic pressure to reconfigure themselves into customer-friendly service providers. Cobbling together degrees that are cheap and cheerful has become a growth activity within the university system. Unfortunately, global competition is likely to encourage the "pile'em high, sell'em cheap" orientation towards the peddling of university degrees. Experts involved in drawing up new business models for universities believe that the global university market is not so much for higher education as for higher degrees. Their activities are based on the assumption that this new market tends to be indifferent to quality issues such as a department's contribution to scholarship and research. Institutions who want to do well need to focus on providing job-related degrees efficiently and relatively cheaply. Universities who want to grab a piece of the action are under considerable pressure to set up what are essentially franchising operations abroad and on the Internet. Nottingham University, which already has a campus in Malaysia, is planning to open one in China. Other institutions are also looking to expand into this lucrative market. The British Council claims that increased student numbers from China and India could add £13 billion to the British economy per annum.

It is a pity that the focus of the globalization of higher education is not the exchange of ideas but the objective of turning education institutions into service providers. The emerging business model driving this activity is bad news for the academic community. It also represents a squandering of an exciting opportunity to transform universities into positive global institutions.

Frank Furedi is a professor in the school of social policy, sociology and social research at the University of Kent.

Reprinted from AUTLOOK with the permission of AUT, 2005.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.