This week I found myself experiencing another ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment when news was circulated that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) would completely withdraw , by 2011, an important source of funding to English universities for scholarships for overseas students – the Overseas Research Students Award Scheme (ORSAS). Currently HEFCE contributes £13 million to this scheme in England, and £15 million overall (including Scotland and Wales).
This comes on top of an announcement in March of this year when UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced to the Parliament that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was terminating its 50 year old commitment made to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. In essence this decision would cut funding to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan – so that scholarships would only be available to developing countries. This funding, however, would not be available for doctoral studies.
Now, the recommendations of the report published in July 2008 by the UK Higher Education International Unit (ironically funded by HEFCE and UUK), The UK’s competitive advantage: The Market for International Research Students (see Executive Summary here), were that if the UK wanted to remain a global leader:
- UK universities must develop a clear and attractive doctoral brand with emphasis on quality and innovation;
- Initiatives that offset the cost of fees and living in the UK must be developed; and that
- More needed to be done to illustrate the benefits of a British doctorate to an international audience and to counter the belief that Britain is an expensive place in which to study.
The Report notes that the UK’s key competitor countries, North America, Europe and Australasia, are all developing recruitment strategies aimed at the post graduate market, contributing to a declining share for the UK.
Given this Report; given, too, that demographic changes mean that by 2020 there will be 16% fewer 18 year olds coming through the university system; and given the stepping up of initiatives in other emerging countries around the globe, [for instance this week the Korean government announced that it not only planned to attract 100,000 foreign students to the country by 2010, but that it would double the number of scholarships available to foreign students by 2012 (currently 1,500) as well as loosen visa restrictions on work], it is difficult not to feel as if this is something of an Alice in Wonderland moment - that things in the UK higher education policy sector are getting ‘curiouser and curiouser’!
Alice, of course, was watching her body extend out like a large telescope, while her feet disappeared almost from sight – a distinctly odd sensation and sight. Musing over her almost disappearing feet and how she might have to send shoes and socks as presents to them to keep them going in the direction she wanted to go, Alice remarked: “Oh dear…What nonsense I’m talking!”
Watching the equally ‘odd’ reshaping of the UK overseas scholarship funding regime in the face of advice – that we should be funding more not less overseas doctoral scholarships, contributes to the distinctly odd sensation – of a kind of ‘policy-autism’ amongst the UK higher education’s research, advice and policymaking units with the result that we seem to be seeing and talking policy nonsense!
Unless, of course, things aren’t quite what they seem!