A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) questioning the implications of the Bologna Process on the UK’s international student market set of alarm bells in the UK media last week. For example, the Guardian (May 22) declared, “UK universities at risk of losing foreign students as a result of the Bologna process”.
The report titled ‘The Bologna process and the UK’s international student market‘, is insightful for it illustrates how the justification for Bologna Process-inspired reforms, and the challenges and opportunities that Bologna affords, continues to be framed differently in national contexts. The report also explicitly links two issues previously discussed in GlobalHigherEd: 1) the overarching aims of the European Higher Education Area (see Per Nyborg’s entry); and 2) the heightened competition among nation-states for their share and position in the market for international students (see Susan Robertson’s series of reviews of a key OBHE report here, here, here, and here).
Bologna structural reforms and the UK’s international student market share
The UK’s traditional success in recruiting international students (second in absolute numbers only to the US according to the OECD) has been based on the perception of quality of provision, the fact that English is the language of instruction, and on the short degree length, relative to other countries. So according to the HEPI report, how does the Bologna Process challenge this advantageous position? Interestingly, while the Bologna Process is a multi-faceted and evolving process of European higher education reform, the report focuses primarily on just one action line: structural reform, also known as the introduction of a three-cycle system, or Bachelor-Master-PhD framework. The report forewarns that introduction of this structure across Europe raises concerns about the UK’s competitive positioning through the inter-related issues of choice, cost, duration and reputation.
- Choice: HEPI cautions that as more European countries introduce a Bachelor-Master structure that was until recently the preserve of a small number of countries, international students will have greater choice when deciding where to study abroad, eroding one of the UK’s competitive advantages.
- Cost: The UK is one of the most expensive countries in which a student can study, both because of the high tuition fees and the relative living costs, particularly in comparison to the low cost in many European countries. While the report argues that the UK offers a “premium product for a premium price” and high cost is often equated with high quality, particularly when related to the global brand/status of a degree available, there may be cause for concern if price sensitivity increasingly becomes a deciding factor for students. (The cost comparison of degrees was also discussed in a previous GlobalHigherEd entry in relation to changing exchange rates on the UK market for international students).
- Duration and reputation: Not only will more Bachelor/Master degrees be available on continental Europe (and around the world), but the short, stand-alone Masters degrees that are particularly lucrative for UK universities may be especially contentious. UK HEIs predominately offer one-year Masters degrees, while many other European countries have chosen to translate the Bologna reforms into two-year second-cycle degrees. (For a discussion on the variation in interpretation of the nature and purpose of different degree cycles across Europe, see EUA’s Trends V report.) HEPI’s concern is that competing countries are framing the UK’s shorter degree as “study light” due to the lower amount of teaching provided and private study required, thereby raising questions about their overall quality. Furthermore, the report states that this issue relates to the perceived “aloofness” of UK policy makers and the “unfair, perhaps, and untrue” questioning of the UK commitment to Bologna that stems in part from the incorrect portrayal that the rest of Europe is undergoing reform to become like the UK rather than the UK being an equal contributor to the on-going process. The report argues that this incorrect perception of non-compliance must be challenged because the potential “Bologna-brand” may be important to the UK’s future attractiveness to international students.
Heightening discourse of competition
Bologna-related discussions have tended to argue that the driving forces for cooperation between national governments, institutions and stakeholders have been to develop a stronger European higher education area, to increase intra-European mobility of students and researchers, and to enhance the “external attractiveness” of European universities to the rest of the world. HEPI’s report illustrates the on-going tensions and contradictions between the broader European goals and particular national concerns, as well as the context of continued competition between national systems of education within Europe.
It is also worth noting that HEPI discusses international student mobility solely in terms of the UK’s share of the global market and the financial contribution they make to institutions. This can be viewed in comparison to other national or regional contexts where the economic “value” of international students is related to research, science and technology objectives, or in terms of immigration and labour force developments (see the Northern Lights report). Given the current context of UK HEIs being financially dependent on income from international student fees – representing on average 8% of their total institutional income – it is perhaps not surprising that overseas students are portrayed primarily as an important export industry.
What the report does not consider is how the range of factors and processes that shape students’ motivations to study abroad extend beyond economic logic. In this sense, the report may be read as taking a homo-economic view on students’ decisions, whereas other strategies such as individual or household strategies to gain symbolic capital in a globalizing economy, desires to remain after graduation to gain place-based work experience or longer-term residency, or simply cultural and experiential goals continue to influence international student mobility patterns.
With the NAFSA conference underway in Washington DC this week, this report provides timely food for thought on how stakeholders and external policy bodies can contribute to the framing of the political and economic processes, as well as the national and institutional strategies, that seek to shape the flows of international students.