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International students and UK credentials

Since I blogged on the dangers of UK universities relying on their credentials in the current climate of change in HE, I’ve been thinking that the situation is a little more interesting than I first presented it.

The fact is we now have a number of different cohorts within the student body in UK HE. One way to divide up the student body is between International and Home/EU students. This is not simply a crude dividing line made on the basis of geographical identification, or even fee status – though of course one cannot hide the differences here. No, there is an important distinction in what international students broadly from the global East and South expect from a university and what students from the West and North are coming to expect.

The previous blog warned of the dangers of assuming that UK universities would be the only way students could get the credentials they need as passports to the best jobs. I think the thrust of that argument is largely correct – but it applies more acutely to our students who come from the richer, more developed, more ‘late stage’ capitalist economies.

In contrast, I have often heard over the last 8 years during my time working with international students that in many countries, from China to Thailand and from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, that the important thing when returning to one’s country after an education in the UK is to have studied ‘at one of the best schools or universities’. The UK degree classification system is still widely not understood in these countries (though knowledge is growing in many places) and a 3rd class degree from UCL, say, is often preferred to a 1st class degree from a less well-known university. Essentially, getting in to a ‘top’ university and somehow getting a graduation certificate from one of these universities, is what is valued in the graduate job market for these international students.

For this reason I think established universities may be more at risk of losing their high-flying Western students than they are at losing equally excellent students from developing countries. The value that a certificate from a UK university can bring will be retained for longer in the developing nations. We may not lose these students so quickly to the sorts of exciting initiatives of MITx and smaller start-up learning spaces in the West which, I think, threaten to grab our brightest and most dynamic students in the next 2-5 years. Of course, many a Vice Provost will be delighted that our International students will continue to come to the UK (!) but it does present us with a challenge when it comes to teaching our cohort as one cohort.

The challenge is that as we are trying to innovate in undergraduate degrees, these two broad sub-cohorts may expect different things and there is a risk that they will pull in opposite directions. Our Western students (Home/EU and International) may broadly be more sympathetic to courses which attempt more radical moves in interdisciplinarity, employability, teamwork and so on. They may perceive (correctly, I think) the value in such an approach for their future work and future lives if those lives are to be based in the West; whereas for other students, getting through the degree with good marks in order to gain a good certificate may be most important as this is what will help them in their future lives and future work. This is not to place a value judgement on the approach of students from the East and South. They must get what they need to progress their lives. Importantly, too, we have a strong obligation to those students paying international fees to respond to their wishes and provide an education which benefits them.

In some ways this picture of different needs for different students is no surprise, of course. The education that an individual seeks will always be, to some extent, motivated and driven by their wider economic and social circumstances . Different countries, with different economies and at different stages of an economic cycle, will require different sorts of graduates. And each individual student will have to be aware of that, however noble their study aspirations might be. It is also true that Liberal Arts education and interdisciplinary education is growing in China, Singapore, the Middle East and elsewhere (and is becoming established in Hong Kong). There is a growing realisation in these countries that the best undergraduate degrees of this type can lead to innovation, creativity and concomitant economic and social benefits that may have been lacking from these societies.

However, it remains the case that the risk of losing students from the West and North – who will get smarter in getting a great education for far less money in the next few years – is greater than losing students to the East and South because of the benefits that a recognised graduation certificate can bring to such students.

I think we can mitigate this by recognising the issues, talking with students, inspiring them to think of interdisciplinarity and other innovations as intellectually exciting, integrating some aspects of globalization into our programmes etc, but we should not proceed as if this issue did not exist.

Anyone else got any thoughts on this?

Photo under CC license, attributed to Wonderlane

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