At Hong Kong Conference, British Higher Education Seeks to Strengthen International Ties

British Council

Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council: "If we're really taking about internationalizing higher education, then we need to begin to move internationally."
March 11, 2011

The British Council has long emphasized the importance of higher education as key to developing good relations with the rest of the world. But with Asian universities on the rise, and questions being raised about the future of British immigration policy, the government-financed educational and cultural council is doing more to strengthen British universities' ties to their foreign counterparts.

For the first time, the council is holding its annual higher-education conference, Going Global, outside of Britain, gathering more than 1,000 participants from 68 countries in Hong Kong on Friday and Saturday to discuss global higher education's new powerhouses, evolving approaches to cross-border education, and other elements of university internationalization.

Martin Davidson, chief executive of the council, said the move to Asia is significant.

Previous meetings "have all been in the U.K., and if we're really taking about internationalizing higher education, then we need to begin to move internationally," he said.

Hong Kong's role as an educational doorway to East Asia is growing, he added, and American as well as British institutions are working in the Chinese territory.

In fact, Going Global isn't the only higher-education conference focused on East Asia this week. The Asia-Pacific Association for International Education held a meeting in Taiwan, drawing university representatives from around the world, though some of them wondered about the lack of American participation.

The Chronicle sat down with Mr. Davidson to learn more about the council's role in advancing British international higher education, and about the financial and political realities that may hamper that effort.

Q. Can you explain the role of the council, especially with regard to higher education?

A. For us, education generally, but higher education in particular, is a way of building those relationships for the future. ... It's important because we all believe that higher education and our capacity to educate our young people to the highest possible levels is going to be critically important in terms of long-term prosperity. Secondly, there are lots and lots of countries who are pumping significant sums of money into developing their own higher-education systems, and if we don't get our higher-education system engaged with the rest of the world, it will slowly begin to decline in terms of its excellence.

So international higher education isn't just about attracting students to study in your universities any longer, which in many ways, I think, was how we perceived it for a long time. But, actually, how do you engage your university? How do you internationalize your university, in order to be able to draw upon the very best talent around the world, in order to be able to provide opportunity for your students which might not otherwise be available, and in order to continue to develop a truly excellent institution?

Q. How do you reconcile this quest for excellence with the fact that British universities are facing the biggest cuts in government support in a generation?

A. The danger for us is that our institutions will fall back on the recruitment of overseas students as a means of plugging a funding gap, rather than seeing the opportunities for a wider international engagement; that we will drop back into an old way, just as the rest of the world is moving into a different way of thinking. That's why something like Going Global is so important for us, because it gives us an opportunity to reinforce that internationalization of higher education as a critical part of what our own institutions need to do, when all the pressures are going to be to go in a different way.

Q. How can British universities remain attractive to overseas students in the face of so much international coverage of rising tuition rates and cuts in government financing, as well as proposed changes to immigration policy?

A. There's a lot of misinformation about what's going on in the U.K. There's an assumption that because fees will rise dramatically for British students, that will have a knock-on effect for international students. There's no relationship between fees for British students and fees for international students at all. One of the things we've done is to ask what is the U.S. experience of that, and one of the things that U.S. students get very upset about is the differential. They can't understand why they're having to pay so much more for the same course as a British student.

Clearly, what will happen in the future is that the differential will disappear. So one of the things that we are constantly trying to put across to people is that this is a very complex and sophisticated set of changes in the U.K., most of which will have virtually no impact at all on the experience of the foreign student.

Q. Two years ago, much of the discussion at Going Global revolved around what impact the international financial crisis would have on higher education. As the crisis has receded, what has been its lasting impact?

A. Over the past two years, we've seen extraordinary resilience in higher education at the individual level to the funding crisis. So we haven't seen a huge drop-off in flows of students, we haven't seen a reduction in students looking for higher education. Quite the opposite. ...

There was a lot of fear two years ago that this would have this huge impact on international higher-education flows, and I don't think we see that. One of the big indicators for us is students taking the Ielts [English-language] examination, and it's very clear to us that the biggest impact on those has been immigration changes.

The big shift is that immigration puts people off, even if immigration policy would still permit them quite easily to travel. The story that they're not welcome is the one that worries people the most, and that is probably the big issue for us.

As we move into these changes in U.K. immigration policy, we must be very careful that we don't send the message that the U.K. is closed to or doesn't welcome foreign students.


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