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Degrees of challenge in British universities

Prasun Sonwalkar/London
Filed on June 24, 2021

As countries vie to attract international students to boost economies and ‘soft power’, the post-Brexit UK tries to remain one of the leading destinations for aspirants from the Indian subcontinent and Gulf expats


There was a time when going to vilayat (“foreign land”) to study invariably meant going to England. Indian films reiterated the stereotype over the decades, when the oft-repeated line “Beta vilayat se padhke aaj ghar aa raha hai” (“my son is returning after studying abroad”) reflected the dominant narrative that mostly men were sent to London to study and return home to cushy jobs or to take over family estates. Later, films begun depicting women following the same study route — for example, in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).

But the situation in the real world is a bit more complex: universities in London/England/the UK can no longer rest on past reputation. It is a cut-throat world out there in what is seen as the ‘international higher education market’, with several countries competing intensely, offering more incentives to attract them for various strategic reasons, including boosting economies and enhancing ‘soft power’.

In the English-speaking world, the multi-billion-dollar field of higher education today has leading players such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, while some non-English speaking countries in Europe have begun offering courses in English. The US attracts the most international students — nearly 1 million every year — with the UK next in the global sweepstakes, hosting over 4,50,000 students. The sector is increasingly seen globally in economic terms, with students viewed as ‘customers’, ‘education’ categorised as an item of ‘export’ in trade figures, and the international trade secretary providing key inputs to the UK’s international education policy.

Higher education in England was long viewed as the pinnacle for pursuing studies, particularly during the centuries of British rule in India. The first five students from colonial India to cross the seas were Dhunjibhoy Naoroji from Bombay, who arrived in 1843 to study at Edinburgh, and four from Calcutta to study at University College London in 1845: Dwarkanath Bose, Chunder Seal, Bholanath Bose and Soorjo Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty; the first women were Toru Dutt and her sister Aru, who attended lectures for women at the University of Cambridge in the early 1870s. The trickle soon turned into numbers in the hundreds.

Later, as world history unfolded amidst world wars and decolonisation in the 20th century, several students from colonial India and other colonies became leaders of freedom movements (such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah) and later went on to hold power in India, the subcontinent, the Commonwealth and elsewhere. Britain long held the pole position as the country that educated most world leaders, but it has been upstaged by the US in recent years.

Nevertheless, international student numbers have swelled in recent decades to the tens of thousands, many of whom have gone on to hold key positions in bureaucracy, judiciary, politics and other fields, reinforcing goodwill for Britain and its ‘soft power’ in various countries.

UK education as ‘soft power’

The three main reasons students from the Indian subcontinent come to the UK today are broadly the same as those outlined in the 1922 report of the Committee on Indian Students, headed by Lord Lytton, son of the former viceroy of India: for a better chance of employment in India, particularly in the government services; because educational facilities were more extensive in Britain; and for lawyers to be called to the Bar.

The latest country-wise numbers of students at UK universities, according to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, include India (52,545), Pakistan (7,165), Bangladesh (2,940), Sri Lanka (1,255) and the United Arab Emirates (5,830). New first-year students who enrolled for the 2019-20 academic year were from: India (39,360), Pakistan (4,150), Bangladesh (1,845), Sri Lanka (605) and the UAE (2,520). (UAE students are mostly children of expatriates from the Indian subcontinent). Some UK universities have set up campuses in the UAE, while others offer shared degrees in the subcontinent, which includes a term or more in the UK.

Says Dubai-based Sunil Manoharan, vice-president (Media Rights) at the International Cricket Council, who studied in the UK: “Studying at the Centre of Mass Communication Research at the University of Leicester was a dream come true. It not only exposed me academically to a wide range of literature on the subject but also connected me to some of the finest minds in the field. The knowledge I picked up helps me even now in my career. And it was not only the classrooms or the library that we were stuck to. We were trained to collect data from the real world and process it, amongst other things; some of my classmates and I did a very interesting research project on the link between Britain and Indian food, which was a lot of fun. On a personal level, my stint at Leicester gave me a very global mindset. I made lifelong friends from various countries, with who I am still in touch. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Bottom line and reforms

Besides reasons of ‘soft power’ exemplified by former students such as Manoharan, there are strong economic reasons to court international students, who typically pay at least three times the annual fees paid by home (British) students — a legacy of education reforms in the Thatcher era. According to a recent analysis by Universities UK — the umbrella organisation of all British universities — international students contribute nearly £26 billion annually to the UK economy, besides over £3 billion in tax revenues; their presence supports 206,000 jobs and provides an invaluable multi-cultural university experience for home students.

The Boris Johnson government recently updated its international education strategy, aiming to increase the value of what it calls ‘education exports’ to £35 billion per year and international student numbers to 6,00,000 per year by 2030; international relations expert Steve Smith has been appointed the ‘international education champion’ to oversee its implementation.

The strategy update followed a year that brought good and not-so-good news for international students, as the UK exited the European Union on January 31, 2020, completed the transition process during 2020 and emerged in the new post-Brexit phase from January 1 this year. Many students were adversely affected as the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, stranding thousands in the UK who could not return home, while others were unable to return to resume courses in the UK after being away for holidays or research fieldwork. Community organisations extended help to such stranded students, and universities exerted to support them while introducing hybrids ways of teaching (online, face-to-face), and visa periods of affected students were extended.

But the most significant development was the Johnson government reinstating from this summer the post-study work visa, which allows international students to take up work for two or three years after completing their courses. It was in place earlier but was discontinued in 2012 as part of efforts to curb immigration (some ‘colleges’ enrolling international students for purposes other than education have since been closed down). A large number of students from the Indian subcontinent previously used it to find work, gain experience and recover some of the high cost to study in the UK, which they usually arranged through bank and other loans. Scrapping the visa had led to a drastic reduction in the number of students from the subcontinent and elsewhere; for example, numbers from India plummeted from 30,090 in 2010-11 to 19,750 in 2017-18, before slowly climbing back, as ministers and others exerted to overcome negative perceptions abroad. The latest figure of 52,545 suggests that the UK has more than recovered from the setback in the number of Indian students after the post-study work visa was revived.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, says: “We have been very pleased to see that student demand for study in the UK has remained strong despite the pandemic. This included a massive 25 per cent increase in applications from India. We believe that there are two things which have stimulated this growth in interest. First, the UK remains open to international students, unlike some other destinations. Universities have been teaching face-to-face wherever possible, combining this with online study where necessary, and all students have been allowed back on campus since May 17. Second, the UK government has introduced a Graduate Route, reinstating post-study work rights for graduates of our universities. Graduates can now stay and work for two years after graduation if with an undergraduate or Master’s degree, or three years if they have completed a PhD here. This has fundamentally increased the appeal of the UK as a study destination as we know that many students value the opportunity to combine work experience with study to kickstart their careers.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson, who updated the education strategy with international trade secretary Elizabeth Truss, is upbeat about the UK’s new offer to international students: “The UK boasts a world-class education offer, a global reputation and a significant presence in international markets. In 2020, the new student immigration route was launched, which has streamlined the immigration process for international students. The new route brings a number of benefits, such as providing greater scope for international students to switch into other routes from inside the UK.”

Quantity vs quality

But for all the UK’s historic and other advantages, the sector faces several challenges, including tough competition from other countries and the impact of recent funding cuts at home that add pressure on universities struggling financially; a small number are reported to be in a critical situation. Some courses, particularly in science and technology subjects, run on the back of enrolment by mostly international students, a situation which has implications for their sustainability, while subject departments with dwindling numbers of students have closed in some universities and academics face redundancies.

The pandemic has accentuated the pressures, but Stern believes that “while some universities have faced inevitable financial pressure because of the pandemic, we don’t think this will lead to widespread closure of courses and it has not affected international student recruitment, which has been remarkably strong given the pandemic”.

The vast majority of students from the Indian subcontinent have a very satisfying experience at UK universities, gaining knowledge and qualifications, access to vast library and other facilities, enjoying the international exposure and forging long-standing links, but some take a while to adapt to the different, more self-reflexive style of teaching and learning than they are used to back home.

There are also differences in quality of instruction and research offered. The UK has over 150 higher education institutions (including many former polytechnics that were granted university status in 1992) — their quality can be plotted across a wide spectrum. The mostly positive range of student experience includes some who are disappointed with their time at institutions with lower standing that may talk up the benefits of enrolling with them in marketing brochures and education fairs abroad. Careful selection of the university destination is crucial.

Sanam Arora, chairperson of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, says: “British higher education is of very good quality, and we certainly boast of research-led institutions of great standing, from Oxford to LSE, but there is always scope for improvement. In particular, there is a challenge for universities and colleges that provide what I would refer to as ‘bog-standard’ MBA courses and generic business management courses. Often they do not have any differentiators that offer real value for money, their infrastructure facilities are nothing special and the brand does not carry particular weight on students’ CVs. Besides, the post-Covid world poses a real challenge to institutions that are not able to provide a genuine unique selling point to students; some need to take a really hard look at their value proposition.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar)





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