The BBC tells us today that more overseas students have been “found”, and that as a consequence the UK is challenging the USA for the position of “top destination for international students”. The message is being put out by the British Council which has a history of talking up international student recruitment figures, making inflated claims for consequent revenue and trying to take the credit. Before Downing Street recommends a new line of gongs for the British Council managers who have spotted the otherwise unremarkable difference between the nationality and domicile figures, and before giving the Americans something else to chuckle about, it may be worth looking at some of the factors that should be taken into account.
1. HESA itself recommends that the figures should be viewed with caution.
Their spokesman (in the BBC report) said:
"Nationality has not been a compulsory field until now and we don't know what these figures mean.
"We don't know to what extent the number of non-UK nationals recorded as being UK domiciled have lived here for a short time or whether most of them might have lived here for a long time and kept a different nationality….we don't know who they are and there isn't anything in the data which tells us."
2. The Vice-Chancellor of City University Malcolm Gillies also urges caution.
"The passport that you hold - and you may well hold more than one - is not a sufficient determinant of whether you are an 'overseas' student or not," he said.
3. Common sense tells us that to compare a gross UK figure with a gross USA figure, when the UK figure has about 1/3rd EU students in it, is to compare apples with oranges.
The EU students choose the UK because they’re on the same deal as UK students (of which more below), meaning that in effect a typical EU student is a lot less “international” than, say, a typical Chinese student. In 2006-2007 the top two countries of origin for international students were China and India, and in third place was Ireland. Are Irish students here “international”? Irish students who pay exactly the same as “home” students? Did these Irish students have an equal choice between, say, Britain, Australia and the USA, and choose Britain? If as an EU citizen a Pole has a right of abode here in Britain, and lives here and decides to study here, does that make him or her an “international” student? EU subsidies boost and distort the UK figure; rather than marking these international student figures up as the British Council has done, the wiser move – at least when articulating competition with the USA - would surely be to mark them down.
4. The playing field for Britain and the USA is not level, and the goal posts have been moved anyway.
Look, for example, at this page on the University of Bedfordshire site. Note that the Student Loans Company (a.k.a. the British taxpayer) pays upfront for EU undergraduates, who then pay back (if they do) on very soft terms. On top of that, as it says here, “The University of Bedfordshire offers some of the most generous bursaries and scholarships in the country. Most UK/EU students that are starting full-time undergraduate degree courses will be able to receive up to £4,262 in financial support, and at the very least every student can receive £319, regardless of family income. This amount is non-repayable, which means that you don’t have to pay it back.” Quite so. The support given to EU students by the British taxpayer – quite apart from available scholarships and bursaries - is generous, and attractive, even compelling. Does the American taxpayer provide such support to French or German or Italian students? I think not. ( And imagine the debacle if the boot were on the other foot).
5. Does the calculation regarding our alleged challenge take into account how the USA defines an international student, and whether their definition is based on domicile or nationality?
Looking at the Open Doors figures the indications are that an “international” student is, as you might expect, defined as one normally domiciled outside the USA. If we were truly to compare like with like and calculate the relative positions of the US and the UK in the free international student market, we estimate that the USA has in fact about three times as many international students as us. And intuition suggests that in a country with a foreign born population of around 35 million, if those among them of student age in Higher Education were counted as “international”, the USA’s “international student” statistics would be of a totally different order, and run to millions.
Massaging the figures is pointless and counter-productive and the British Council assertion that their study indicates that the UK now rivals the USA as top destination is typically superficial, overblown and unprofessional.