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Global citizen students

Professor Zahir Irani supports the welcoming of overseas students, and advocates British students seeking opportunities abroad

What lessons have we learned over the last academic year that will help us prepare for the year ahead?

That we need to work harder than ever to convert students into firm acceptances. We can’t rely on insurance offer holders and clearing to ensure we have the student numbers we need. The old stability has gone.

What were the major developments during the last academic year? Has it been a successful year for UK HE? 

Enactment of the removal of the student cap has created a real market for HE. Only time will tell whether this was a successful government strategy and the actual impacts it will have across the sector. There are going to be winners and losers, with some institutions expand, others will no doubt contract in size.

Removing the cap on student numbers is one of the most debated topics in UK higher education. How will this affect the UK HE scene this year?

Institutions will be conducting portfolio reviews and deciding what is no longer economical to deliver to small numbers and which offerings are simply too costly. Decisions will then be made about how to improve efficiencies or whether to withdraw certain provisions due to strategic re-positioning.

It has been reported that grants given to students could be cut as part of savings the Department for Business needs to make, what do you think of this, and what impact will it have on UK HE overall?

I think Universities UK (UUK) are working hard to stress the value that overseas students bring to the UK, not only in financial terms but also in enriching the study and research environment.’

Students are already under significant pressure in terms of ensuring they are doing well on their courses and socially, from the need to feel they’re making the most of their student experience, the campus facilities and extracurricular activities. Inevitably, it’ll mean more students looking to take on paid employment, which has the potential to change the nature of student experiences and attitudes to what university life should be like. 

UK universities are constantly having to compete with international institutions to stay at the top of the world rankings, and attract the best students from all over the world. Are we on the right track to stay competitive, or are there potential pitfalls ahead? 

The world is getting smaller as most countries deliver some or all of their curriculum in English. The challenge for UK universities will be around how to develop global citizens and encourage home students to undertake volunteering, internships or placements overseas. Many British students are disadvantaged by only speaking English, so there needs to be a real push in schools and universities to develop language skills. I am, however, encouraged by the way in which employability skills are now considered the norm and embedded in most student experiences. The next step is to ensure these attributes and behaviors are nurtured and given real opportunity to be enhanced within volunteering and placement opportunities.

The government has pledged to “reform the student visa system,” but universities have previously warned that the drive to reduce net migration is harming recruitment of international students. What can universities do to help push their agenda forward? 

I think Universities UK (UUK) are working hard to stress the value that overseas students bring to the UK, not only in financial terms but also in enriching the study and research environment. I think more promotion and awareness-raising of these benefits to the electorate, through professional societies and through open days, will be important and help change views so that parents can see the value of their children studying alongside others from all over the world. At the end of the day, government policy can – and should be – shaped by the electorate.

The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. What does this mean for UK HE?

In the wake of a vote to leave the EU, the financial implications could be significant. EU students would become classed as overseas for fee and immigration purposes, making the UK a less attractive option. A €2bn cut EU research budget is planned and future funding would be limited. Access to Horizon 2020 grants and partnerships/consortium will become pressured.

What are the biggest challenges facing the sector for the next year?

Fundamentally, the timing and content of the comprehensive spending review. Campus building costs are now inflating at a time when students continue to look for higher standards of facilities. The USS changes make the sector less attractive to early career academics and could act as a possible push to more senior staff. HE will need to take on more competition from apprenticeships and the offers of 2-year degrees. And in the current climate, showing how we are playing our part in preventing extremism on campus.

Professor Zahir Irani is Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences and Head of Brunel Business School. 

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