International students: global outlooks

UK universities are a huge draw for international students says Professor Amir M Sharif, acting head of Brunel Business School

The recruitment and retention of international and overseas students continues to be an important component of the student demographic for all universities. So much so that this is one success story that almost every university wants to share. But given the dynamic nature of the HE sector in the UK as well as stringent border controls in recent years, it might be assumed that there has been a rapid and negative slowdown in overseas students coming here. Whilst there has been a retraction from some of the key BRIC markets to (largely commonwealth) countries such as Australia and Canada, the simple fact of the matter is that international students still appear to want to
beat a path to these shores.

Part of the reason is, of course historical and the UK is quite rightly still a major driver of the global knowledge economy. With universities from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being recognised as global seats of learning, HEFCE recently noted that the sector is one of eight identified by the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) as an “engine of growth”. This is partly due to a relatively strong home market for first degree study, but it is equally supported by a buoyant market for international students. This is particularly the case as far as postgraduate programmes are concerned, where a large proportion of UK master’s and doctoral courses are filled with (sometimes sovereign-government funded) international students.

As noted, the UK’s university system continues to be a huge draw given the prominence of universities in global rankings. However merely viewing international students as purely ‘welcome’ high-fee income is to distort and devalue the benefits they bring. Specifically in terms of business schools, it goes without saying management education programmes need to be representative of the global business and social community within which businesses operate. This means achieving a diverse mix as opposed to a mono-culture from one or two particular countries which may lead to a myopic view and understanding of wider global issues. At Brunel, one constant we can be sure of is the higher percentage of international students on our master’s programmes. One of the reasons behind this is that students not only want to be seen as being international themselves (migrating from one country to another to learn); but also to be seen as being global citizens in doing (being part of a wider knowledge culture). Given this, it is natural to expect a large percentage of international students on a campus as a reflection of the natural diversity in the world.

When you speak to students though, the response is usually more prosaic: they want to develop their own personal perspective of the world, appreciate how knowledge is interpreted, consumed and created by other cultures – and ultimately, they want to build truly globally connected friendships.

The challenge for universities, then, is to not only bring students to the UK to make themselves more ‘international’, but also seek to externalise some of these very same unique aspects through strategies such Transnational Education (TNE) provision. Only then can we start to see a shift from talking about overseas students as being simply ‘international’, to overseas students being ‘global’.

Views and opinions expressed are personal and not those of Brunel University

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The international student pathway reimagined

Thursday, December 2, 11AM (GMT)