The competition for international students is getting tougher

27 January 2012

Peter Scott, University of London

Internationalisation is the word of the day among Western universities. Everyone is competing for the same ‘customers’, fee-paying international students. However, even if there are many of them, the numbers are not unlimited. The range of programmes on offer could soon exceed demand.

This is, in any case, the view of Daniel Guhr, an international education consultant who has visited Lund a number of times. In his opinion, there are already many international students who do not have good enough English skills to complete a degree abroad.

"Pidgin academic English’ is becoming far too common”, says Daniel Guhr. “One example is a top international university where a third of the students on a Master's programme could barely read and write English.”

Many universities have therefore introduced a foundation year with training in academic English. Such ideas are now being considered in Lund (see separate article). A foundation year would make a degree even more expensive for international students, but would guarantee both that the students pass their courses and that the universities maintain standards.

“By now, there are many universities that should confess that they admit international students whom they would not have admitted ten years ago. An increasing proportion of these students would not cope if the universities did not lower their requirements”, says Daniel Guhr. He claims to have seen clear grade inflation, for example in Australia, which has long welcomed large numbers of international students.

The fact that so many students with poor language skills are admitted could be because they cram for the English test but have not really learnt to use the language. However, it could also be because of various types of cheating, from using their mobile phones during the test to sending a cleverer stand-in or simply buying a qualification.
There is no simple solution to the problem of cheating.

“All attempts to tackle it have been met with new ways of getting round the checks. However, one fundamental step is that the universities join forces and quickly share any new experience in the area. Another option is of course to re-test all new students to check that their results are correct”, says Daniel Guhr.

The number of universities that want to attract international students is increasing rapidly. The Netherlands, for example, has many English degree programmes and France has 400 Master's programmes in English.

The reasons for this striving for internationalisation vary, from honourable to more dubious motives. Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, has stuck his neck out by writing an article about it in the Guardian. He speaks about “the good, the bad and the ugly”.

From his office on Russell Square in London, Peter Scott looks out over a courtyard bustling with students on their way between the different university buildings.
“Internationalisation can be enriching both for the individuals and for the study environment”, he says, looking out at the motley crew of students. “But it can also be done for the wrong reasons, just to earn money.”

‘The good’ are the honourable arguments: that internationalisation provides development, new skills and new insights to all parties. ‘The bad’ is what Peter Scott calls internationalisation which has the main aim of marketing a university or a country for commercial and political ends. ‘The ugly’ is when weak universities market themselves strongly abroad because they are not able to recruit enough domestic students.

“For a student in Asia it is not easy to judge the quality of a university in England. Universities can therefore get away with dubious claims that would immediately be exposed at home”, says Peter Scott critically.

According to a report from the vice-chancellors' organisation Universities UK, tuition fees from international students represented five per cent of universities' income at the end of the 1990s, but 10 per cent by the 2008/2009 academic year. A number of English universities are also planning continued strong growth in the number of non-European students they admit. There is now concern in some areas that the pressure on teaching time, teaching rooms and accommodation will have a disproportionate impact on domestic students. This in turn could strengthen the xenophobic forces in the country.