We are in an international student market, and the UK’s share is in peril – Sir Keith Burnett


Lord Willetts, the former universities minister, has previously said that to get real competition into higher education, we need to let students take their student loans and use them elsewhere in the world. Interesting idea that, an “international voucher system” for students.

Such a system is a fairly well-worn idea from the guru of free markets, Milton Friedman. He proposed it for secondary education, arguing that it could drive up standards in the US.

From the point of view of the university student, opening up international choice and the freedom to travel is a fine idea. Indeed, young people are concerned that their ability to move between countries could be constrained post Brexit, just as they are being told that they need to be globally agile.

Some really smart and confident young people are already able to take up scholarships in the US, at, say, Harvard University or Yale University. However, for those of us who only managed to scrape into the University of Oxford, we might have to pay the full whack for going. But there are other options.

I have a colleague who did her undergraduate study in the US, and was able to pay for her education by a combination of partial scholarships and fees that she repaid by working part time before returning to Blighty. That’s the important issue, being able to pay for education without racking up debt.

Willetts will also know that if you want to do a PhD overseas, you might not need a loan at all. It is not only undergraduate tuition that is free to students in Germany – and there are a good number of scholarships available across the US, where doctoral students are even paid because of the talent that country knows they will bring. Again, the student who takes this option will end up with no debt and, often, the possibility of a job in the US.

But would we really improve the standards of UK higher education by adding this extra bit of competition due to student mobility? The biggest competition we face is already global: competition for international students. This is where we compete with the likes of the US, Canada, Australia – and they really do keep us on our toes.

I think that most companies would agree that the real test of how good you are is how you perform on the international stage. And we were doing rather well until those in government decided to make much it harder for us. They did this by making language regulations to get a visa tougher than other countries.

They did it by classing students as immigrants. They did it by taking the UK out of Europe. They did it by removing post-study work that enabled students to clear part of the debt before returning home. If politicians wanted us to succeed internationally, they have also made us do so against the drag of conditions they have created.

Let’s admit it, our international students have done an enormous amount in driving up quality, and we have used what they pay to improve our facilities for all. British universities are so damn good that many students are still coming to the UK precisely because of the quality of teaching and scholarship that we have been building up for decades and, in some cases, centuries.

But those who know how to read the global trends recognise that UK market share is in peril.  And now let’s get to the real danger for our universities: the competition for world-class staff.

Universities are not companies or assets; they are made up of people. Other countries have realised that they are in a competition for talent and know that you recruit staff when they are still students. These staff, many in science, engineering and medicine, are also the very people we need for our industrial strategy. And international student fees have kept us going as other government funding is frozen.

So sure, make it easier for UK students to take their loan abroad, but be aware of what that might mean when they graduate.

And what about that final step in any corporate international strategy – moving the universities rather than the student? Pearson was founded in the UK, but has 35,000 employees in 70 countries; its education division has an international and US division with more than half of its sales generated in America and much of its online support based overseas, too. Non UK-based global players will also be eyeing our “market”.

Some UK universities already have wonderful campuses abroad, and are flying the UK flag around the world. My own university, Sheffield, has an international faculty in Thessaloniki serving students across the Balkans.

But for all the talk of “our” universities, we should remember that if a university ceases to be a place of educational purpose and becomes simply a provider of a commercial service, there is nothing to stop it simply winding down its UK commitments if regulation becomes too invasive or profit margins shrink. Such organisations might even pull out of teaching altogether, being one day a provider of degrees and the next of whatever will satisfy shareholder need.

In the end, what keeps many of us committed to education is vocation. My university, for example, was founded “for the people” of Sheffield, not even simply students, and the hope of public benefit was what persuaded Edwardian factory workers in Sheffield’s steelworks to reach into their pockets to change not only the educational prospects of their children but their economy, their hospitals and their status as a city.

Today, our global strategy never forgets this local mission. If you talk to local businesses, as I do often, they will tell you just how vital international students are to their future. And when I look at how international prowess and students have delivered new high-paying jobs in places such as Rotherham, I am proud.

Our local companies gain contacts and orders because we are international.

We are in a struggle to keep our universities open to the world, able to compete on a level playing field. The government should do all that it can to help us. Because this is not special pleading, it is reality.

Bluntly speaking, the UK has never needed us more.

This first appeared on the Times Higher Education website 26 November 2017