The global battle for the affections of students

Could UK universities lose their shine as rivals turn on charm?

Irena Barker

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Each year, thousands of undergraduates flee abroad for their university education, often to the US, the UK, Australia and France. And, as the sector becomes more globalised, competition for students is stiffer than ever.

But one figure in international education has claimed that British universities may be failing to exploit a rich seam of potential undergraduates.

Colin Bell, executive director of the Council of British International Schools (Cobis), has said that British institutions must not "become complacent" and assume that pupils educated in his schools will choose the UK for higher education. He warned that students educated abroad under the British national curriculum may now opt to study for degrees in other countries, where costs may be lower and financial help more plentiful.

Although Cobis has only 150 member schools, market analyst ISC Research says that more than 3,000 English-language schools are following a British-style curriculum outside the UK, educating 1.4 million students. Only about 20 per cent of Cobis' students are from British expatriate families, with the remainder coming from the local population.

Mr Bell said that it would be "disappointing" for students who had received a British education around the world to be lost once they entered higher education. "When a student has had a relationship with British education from age 4 to 18, let's not lose that momentum, let's encourage them to go to British universities," he told TES. "British universities cannot afford to become complacent."

He said that a "lot of good work" had already been done by universities to forge links with British international schools but "a more consistent marketing approach" was needed.

"Some schools have excellent relationships with admissions departments but that is not consistent," he said, adding that there was a "lot more scope" for regional recruitment events.

Mr Bell's comments come shortly after the UK's Independent Schools Council, which represents private schools, released figures revealing that 3.4 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds at its schools opted to study abroad last year for undergraduate degrees. The US and Hong Kong were the most popular destinations. More than half of the schools said that they had students who planned to study abroad and 38 per cent reported an increase in the number who planned to do so. Currently, about half of students graduating from Cobis schools go on to UK universities.

But Kristine Murray, international manager at the UK's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), said that, despite competition, the UK remained a "top choice for international students, as highlighted by the most recent Ucas statistics, which showed an increase in (European Union) and (non-European Union) applicants".

"Higher education in the UK offers international students a huge choice of courses and institutions, teaching excellence and a strong student experience in one of the world's most multicultural societies," she added.

The warning from Cobis comes after the Sutton Trust, a UK social mobility charity, prepared to take 150 students aged 16-17 to the US to visit the Ivy League of elite universities this summer. A pilot trip last year resulted in 12 students winning places at Harvard and other top US universities, and being awarded bursaries totalling pound;1.24 million.

Anthony Seldon, master of the private Wellington College in southeast England, recently criticised UK universities for lagging behind their US counterparts and being stuck in a "malaise" fuelled by underinvestment. He claimed that cash-strapped universities provide less contact time with lecturers and display only a "perfunctory interest" in sport and the arts.

Harvard has reported an increase in British applicants of 40 per cent in the past four years, and the University of Southern California reported a rise of 50 per cent between 2010-11 and 2011-12. Including private school applicants, the proportion of students taking US college entrance exams in Britain has increased by about a third in the past three years, according to the Fulbright Commission, which encourages educational exchange between the UK and the US.

Photo credit: Corbis

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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