Competition squeezes UK on both ends of higher ed spectrum

International students continue to rate their experience in the UK highly. For example, the i-graduate International Student Barometer – an annual survey that has collected the opinions of over one million international students studying in higher education – indicates that international student satisfaction in the UK continues to rank highly year on year across all measured categories since the survey began in 2005.

Many observers, however, continue to raise concerns about the long-term prospects of Britain’s competitiveness in global education markets. And earlier this month, two additional reports pointed to further competitive pressures for British higher education across the higher ed spectrum.

UK brain drain

Writing in The Telegraph, Harvard University Professor (and British expat) Stephen Blyth points out that leading American universities are recruiting British students in greater numbers than ever these days, in no small part due to the generous financial support available to top students at US institutions.

“I encounter [growing numbers of UK students] in my office hours, ambitious young men and women who, in a different era, would have headed to Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial or other leading UK universities without considering an American alternative.

“A similar story is playing out at other elite US universities. Higher education as a whole has become a more international enterprise, but it is likely that the shifting economics of education in the UK versus the US is contributing to the increasing numbers of British undergraduates studying in America. The highly charged debate in Britain has focused largely on the level of fees, but the more relevant metric is affordability; that is, the net cost of a university education, once financial aid has been factored in.”

Professor Blyth makes a persuasive argument that, once financial aid at American universities is accounted for, the costs of study in America are comparable to those of studying at home for British students, and he sets out a challenge to UK institutions to step up their efforts to build their endowments and financial aid programmes.

His larger point, however, is that British universities can no longer assume that top students will be drawn to them by default.

“A decade ago, the leading UK universities maintained a virtual oligopoly on able students; now, new-world competitors are poaching their talent,” he adds. “This is worrying for the UK. While many British students may ultimately return home to pursue a career, an international undergraduate education can often be the first step towards a more permanent emigration of talent.”

Asian education on the rise

Meanwhile, the latest Times Higher Education (THE) 100 Under 50 ranking reveals that while the UK placed an impressive 18 institutions on the prestigious international ranking table of “young” universities (that is, those under 50 years old), 11 of those fell in their positions from last year and a further two British institutions dropped off the table altogether.

What is perhaps even more noteworthy is who is taking their place.

The top five positions on the THE table are held by universities in Asia, with Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology earning the top rank again this year.

Phil Baty edits the 100 Under 50 ranking for THE and he attributes the shifting balance of power to the willingness to invest in higher education. “In the race to attract the world’s top talent and to develop new knowledge, universities have to run fast just to stand still,” he said. “And at this crucial moment, while others are sprinting ahead, there is a risk that the UK is getting bogged down by austerity cuts and immigration rows. South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore are putting massive resources behind their universities and Britain at the moment is hitting them very hard with austerity.”

Speaking to The Telegraph, Simon Renton of the UK’s University and College Union concurred and added:

“Only with increased investment does the UK have a fighting chance of competing on this increasingly dynamic world stage where developing countries have proved they can set up world class players in just 20 years. The days where we could take our historical dominance for granted are over.”

This perspective is reflected in a growing chorus in the UK arguing for reform and greater competitiveness in the British higher education system.

Such debates are not new within leading international study destinations, but what is perhaps different in the case of the UK is the apparent growing awareness that the country’s international position has been weakened by policy at home and by new challenges abroad from both established and emerging competitors.



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