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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Why the UK must up its game when it comes to recruiting international students

By Sylvie Lomer & Terri Kim

This article was first published on conversation on 5 June 2018

International students make billions of pounds for the UK economy and help open up a window on the world to domestic students. That’s apparently why universities are supposed to recruit them, according to government policy. Yet international students are at risk because of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ to migration and because of the way the sector recruits them.

Graph

This is a risky proposition for a sector that relies on reputation, as future students could see this country as using them as cash-cows instead of valued partners. An alternative vision of ethical student recruitment would not only be morally sound, it would be economically and educationally sustainable too.

More is not always better

Success is often defined as growth. Policy on international students has in the past often set goals for increased numbers of students. For many institutions increasing numbers is a key indicator of success.

This growth can only be sustained if the supply of students keeps expanding. But population growth in the UK’s single most important market, China, is slowing down.

True, economic growth in key countries (such as China and India) which send students to the UK suggests growing middle classes. Middle class students tend to seek international education to gain an advantage in tough job markets. And – more importantly – they can afford it. But as the middle classes expand, so too does the domestic provision of higher education in such “sending” countries. Historically, the UK has been seen as “the” destination for quality higher education. But as education quality in the “sending” countries improves, the UK will gradually lose this advantage. So the UK cannot define its success in recruiting international students exclusively based on growth.

New competitors

Competitive success means outdoing other providers and growing the market share. For the last decade, the UK has held second place to the US, recruiting 11% of globally mobile students (see below graphic).

graph2Global market share of internationally mobile students for leading study destinations, 2016. IIE/Project Atlas (2017)

But rival countries are constantly changing their strategies and policies on recruitment and new competitors are entering the market. Japan, South Korea, India, China and Malaysia now all attract significant numbers of students. Seeking to gain market share against competitors then becomes a perpetual arms race.

No perfect number

There is no perfect number or ratio of international to home students. For a start, international students are concentrated in particular subjects, like business studies (see below graphic).

graph3International student numbers by subject area 2016-17. HESA 2018

International students are also concentrated in particular universities, from as few as 15 non-EU students at universities such as Leeds Trinity to over 11,000 at institutions like University College London. Some have suggested that “too many international students” affects the “quality” of the university experience. This implies that all international students are less academically able than home students, ignoring their achievements and capacity to study in second and third languages. A more positive but equally simplistic assumption is that because there are international students in a classroom, beneficial “intercultural” exchanges will happen.

This flawed simplicity of the imagined impact of international students was made clear in a survey by the UK Home Office which asked British home students whether international students had a positive or negative impact on their “university experience”. The survey had to be withdrawn after criticism that it was flawed and “open to abuse”. By positioning international students at odds with home students, the survey deepens a sense of exclusion within UK universities, rather than inclusion. Initiatives like this create the impression that universities are xenophobic and hostile places for international students. They should be egalitarian, diverse and hospitable environments for learning.

 What would success look like?

Universities need to decide for themselves what successful international student recruitment looks like. For some, this will mean large populations in particular courses. Other institutions may be more strategic in considering numbers and distribution, linked to curricular aims, graduate outcomes and teaching approaches. Raw numbers are not a helpful indicator for this decision.

The government’s role should be to support universities by establishing a welcoming environment for international students. Committing to secure funding for higher education, rather than proposing frequent changes would offer the sector the stability to engage in long term financial planning, including – but not exclusively reliant on – international recruitment. The sector and the government need to commit to developing international student recruitment ethically. Currently, international students achieve fewer good degrees than home students do, yet pay significantly higher fees.

International students can come to study in the UK in the full expectation of experiencing a “British” education, only to find themselves on a course with an entirely international cohort, potentially of students from the same country. They can also start the application process, expecting to be welcomed as a guest, and find instead a confusing, expensive visa process and a hostile media and political environment. A commitment to ethical international student recruitment would start from the premise that international education should equally benefit all students. It would mean universities putting international recruitment in service to education. And it would mean the government leading the way on valuing international students as part of a sustainable internationalised higher education sector.

 Sylvie Lomer is a Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester. SRHE member Terri Kim is Reader in Comparative Higher Education, Cass School of Education and Communities, University of East London.

Brenda Leibowitz


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Brenda Leibowitz 1957 – 2018

It is with much sadness that the SRHE community notes the passing of Brenda Leibowitz, a South African scholar in academic development and higher education. Her recent work on academic staff development features twice in the SRHE/Routledge book series; first, a chapter in the edited 2016 book “Researching Higher Education: International perspectives on theory, policy and practice”, and then, with Vivienne Bozalek and Peter Kahn, a 2017 book “Theorising learning to teach in higher education”. She also presented her work at the SRHE annual conference and will be known to many in the community for her engagement across a wide range of higher education conferences in South Africa and abroad.

Brenda’s engaged scholarship over nearly 30 years was strongly rooted in her activist commitment to recognizing a democratic and transformed South Africa through education and higher education. She began teaching in secondary schools designated for ‘coloured’ pupils and this sharpened sense both of the inequities of apartheid and the possibilities in education led to a most formative stint in the Academic Development Centre at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where her practice and emerging scholarship focused on language issues in the university. She followed this with a period of curriculum work as a Director in the national Department of Education, completing a PhD from the University of Sheffield, and moved from here to nearly a decade directing the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University. Here her work moved from a focus on student development to staff development, bringing with it a critical edge and an exceptionally strong commitment to collaboration and empowerment. In 2014 her scholarship was noted with the appointment to a chair in Teaching and Learning at the University of Johannesburg (and more recently, with the award of an National Research Foundation (NRF) funded South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) position on Post School Education and Training).

Brenda was one of the Principal Investigators on an ESRC Newton/NRF funded project entitled “Southern African Rurality in Higher Education” (SARiHE), which began in 2016 and will complete work in 2019. Brenda’s long-term interest in social justice in higher education especially for students from rural backgrounds in South Africa helped to secure funding for this project. The Southern African University Learning and Teaching (SAULT) forum, which she helped to build, has also been important in this project and has facilitated the involvement of academics and academic developers from across nine Southern African countries.

Brenda was absolutely prolific in her deep scholarship, and pulled many others along in her wake. She published across national and international journals, book chapters and books. A flavour of the evolution of her distinctive scholarship can be seen in the perusal of some of her article titles that drew on direct quotes from her research participants:

* “Why now after all these years you want to listen to me?” Using journals in teaching history at a South African university. The History Teacher, 1996 

* “Communities isn’t just about trees and shops”: Students from two South African universities engage in dialogue about ‘community’ and ‘community work’. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 2008 

* What’s Inside the Suitcases? An investigation into the powerful resources students and lecturers bring to teaching and learning. Higher Education Research and Development, 2009 

* “Ah, but the whiteys love to talk about themselves”: Discomfort as a pedagogy for change. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 2010 

* “It’s been a wonderful life”: Accounts of the interplay between structure and agency by “good” university teachers. Higher Education, 2012 

The title of her most recent paper, with colleague Vivienne Bozalek, ‘Toward a Slow scholarship of teaching and learning in the South’ is also revealing. ‘Slow scholarship’ foregrounds qualities such as thoughtfulness, attentiveness, the valuing of relationships, creativity, and depth of engagement – qualities that embody so well Brenda’s own scholarship and her way of being in the world.

In her research, Brenda leaves an extraordinary written record of scholarship; however, more importantly, there are the many, many lives that this extraordinary educator and scholar touched and influenced deeply. Brenda had an openness and generosity of spirit that allowed her to traverse boundaries and bring together collaborative teams across all the usual divisions of discipline, social background and institutional type. She had a solid compass that never deviated from its pointing towards the long arc of social justice, but she accomplished all she did with notable humility and serious interest in others and their educational and research journeys.

The period of late apartheid bred a distinctive sort of higher education researcher, many of these working in academic development at UWC in the 1990s. In this group of hugely influential higher education scholars, including Chrissie Boughey and Melanie Walker, Brenda made a distinctive and important contribution, cut much too short by her cancer diagnosis. We will remember her with love and admiration.

Jenni Case, Lisa Lucas and Delia Marshall