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Overseas Students
Jan 4, 1995

Overseas student issues have assumed greater prominence in Britain, on the educational and political level, since the introduction of full-cost fees in 1979. This event transformed a historic tradition of educational obligation based on the bonds of Empire and the links of Commonwealth into an economic opportunity for British institutions. It 'gave formal recognition to the view that foreign students were a commodity to be valued mainly for the income they generated: in an era of widespread cuts the recruitment of more foreign students provided one key to institutional survival' (Williams et al., 1987, plO).

According to statistics, there were as many as 123,759 overseas students in publicly financed British higher education institutions in the academic year 1977/78 (BCSOS, 1977-78, pp.6-7). Following the introduction of full-cost fees, the number fell to 88,037 in 1979 and then to 56,121 in 1984 (OST, 1987, p.17).

Since the mid-1980s the number of overseas students has been rising gradually (see table below). According to the latest available detailed statistics, the total number of overseas students in publicly financed British higher education stood at 92,100 in 1991, an increase of 9 percent on the figure for 1990 (DFE, 1993, Tables 1 and 6). It must be noted that these figures do not cover private sector colleges, whose overseas students are almost as numerous as those in publicly-financed institutions. According to a 1985 study, the full-time equivalent number of overseas students was 86,500. The fact that the number of first-year higher education student numbers in 1991 rose by 16 per cent indicates that the growth in total numbers may have continued over the following years (DFE, 1993, Tables 2 and 3).

The majority of undergraduate students are privately financed, mainly by their parents. The post-graduate students are mostly financed by public bodies, such as overseas governments, as well as by international institutions, such as the British Council. The number of British government- funded overseas students and trainees in the UK was 17,400 in 1985. As well as regular higher education, a considerable number come to Britain for language courses, mainly private, and for other courses of which details are not available.

The status of English as the international language, combined with other comparative advantages of Britain (relatively to other student recruiting countries), such as its being technologically advanced and its extensive counselling programmes for overseas students, have helped it to draw sizeable numbers of talented post- graduates as well as undergraduates into its educational system. It seems that Britain is increasingly moving towards the idea of importing the 'best and brightest brains' as an energy source for its educational and other institutions (Chandler, 1989, p.7). This policy resulted in the doubling between 1980 and 1986 of the number of awards under the Overseas Research Students Awards Program (ORSAS). The holders of an ORSAS award, which covers the difference between home cost' and 'full-cost' fees for a particular course of study, constitute approximately 20 percent of the post-graduate research students in British universities (Chandler, 1989, ph). The administration of foreign student policy in Britain, within the broad framework set up by the government, rests with the higher educational institutions and with the British Council as the 'marketing arm' of British higher education and culture abroad (Chandler, 1989, p.7).

Growing emphasis has been placed on the short-term economic benefits foreign students confer as 'tourists' bringing in foreign currency. British sources estimated the income earned from foreign students through the fees they pay and through their own and their families' expenditures for food, clothing, accommodation etc., at more than 1 billion a year - one-sixth of total tourist expenditures (OST, 1987, p.78). The profit comes from the difference between the full-cost fees that foreign students pay and the marginal costs they represent. The figure is likely to rise as a result of the increase in fee levels and the increase in the expenditure.

In British educational institutions, overseas students have come to be viewed as an important source of income, and as 'cheap postgraduate labour' (Williams et al, 1987, p.9). Apart from the educational and foreign policy benefits that overseas students provide (see below), it is interesting to note that overseas students, particularly in technical and scientific fields, constitute a double financial benefit for the British institutions: firstly, because of the high level of fees they pay (around 8- 10,000), and secondly, by providing cheap post-graduate labour for research carried out by the universities. Otherwise, universities would have to employ or recruit from abroad research assistants, at salaries of around 15-20,000 annually. It is increasingly spelt out that a university or a polytechnic is the poorer if it does not have at least 5 percent of its students from overseas (OST, 1987, p.5).

The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 allowed polytechnics and colleges to attain university status on the condition that their educational provision met specified standards. Following this, some 40 polytechnics and colleges have been granted university status recently (DPE, 1993, point 34). In addition to other educational considerations, it is likely that one of the underlying reasons for Parliament's allowing this to happen is to attract more overseas students to institutions which they had once regarded as inferior to universities.

In addition to direct benefits, the eventual cost-benefits of overseas students in trade and diplomatic relations have become increasingly important. This was frankly stated by Sir Anthony Parsons as follows: 'If you are thoroughly familiar with someone else's language and literature, if you know and love the country, the arts, the people, you will be instinctively disposed to buy goods from them rather than from a less well-known source, to support them actively when you consider them to be right, and to avoid criticizing them too fiercely when you regard them as wrong' (Parsons, 1984). With the realization that Britain is no longer a major economic and military power, emphasis has been put on a reassessment of national assets and a greater awareness of the influence which British cultural patrimony can exercise (Malcolm, 1987, p.38). The policy debate, both nationally and in educational institutions, has focused primarily on the financial as well as on the educational benefits of the presence of overseas students.

Among the educational benefits which overseas students bring are (OST, 1990):

a) contributing to cultural enrichment;

b) testing general intellectual assumptions;

c) contributing knowledge and experience to specific courses;

d) improving pedagogical provision and contributing to staff development;

e) raising academic standards among home students;

f) helping to maintain course viability;

g) helping to maintain research capability.

In particular, there are courses in many institutions which would not be viable due to low demand from home students. Sometimes whole departments depend on overseas students for this reason. Thus, overseas students can allow an institution to offer a range of courses, a variety of academic provision, to the benefit of home students whose choice might otherwise be limited. The proportion of post-graduate overseas students in publicly-funded higher education institutions in Britain was 33 percent in 1981 and 36 percent in both 1990 and 1991 (DFB, 1993, Table 1).

Secondly, the strength of British universities in research often determines the success of their links with commerce and industry, which in turn largely depends on their international reputation in the field. The severe shortage of British research postgraduates poses a threat to many research projects, particularly in laboratory subjects. Consequently, overseas research students, who are usually of very high quality, are a valued asset, as they often maintain an institution's research capability, its academic reputation and financial security.

The level of human resources will undoubtedly become an issue of increasing importance for the UK as well as other student recruiting countries, as highly trained scientific and technical personnel continue to affect worldwide economic and scientific growth. Human resource needs will have to be met across national boundaries. Developed countries, also, require increasing numbers of highly trained and specialized researchers and technologists, who can originate new products and services.

In the discussion of overseas students policy, various idealistic and pragmatic arguments have been put forward. These arguments for the import of foreign students are closely interconnected in a way that reflects the reality. Phrases like 'cultural diversity', 'internationalism', 'cultural diplomacy', technology transfer', 'cultural transfer', 'money-making', etc., are some of the symbolic explanations of that reality. One observer has commented: 'The relations between North and South are not primarily those of obligation or charity, but of mutuality of interest and of interdependence. Britain has her own interest in ensuring that development takes place in a peaceful and orderly manner. As a nation living by trade and the selling of services, and as the holder of considerable investment overseas, Britain... has a stake in political stability abroad and the fostering of international understanding' (Williams, 1982, p.16).

The mutuality of need, rather than any other single factor, and rather than concepts of either obligation or opportunity, determines the continued importance of foreign students and of constructive and realistic foreign student policies (Chandler, 1989, pp. ix-x).

This 'mutuality' is a fairly one-sided benefit fully exploited by the receiving countries. Despite the fact that each individual student, more or less, pursues his or her aim and achieves the qualifications necessary, this success is, nevertheless, bound to remain on a micro level. The governments of the sending countries, in general, lack policies to channel and co-ordinate these endeavours into a single, sound, overall mechanism at a macro level in their own countries. The sending countries must, therefore, formulate appropriate policies and implement them. How that's to be done is a separate question beyond the scope of the present discussion.