Another ‘Alice in Wonderland moment’ with the further round of overseas scholarship funding cuts for UK universities?

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!

Susan Robertson

Fostering creativity in European higher education

Fostering creativity and innovation through education, it would appear, is the sine qua non for the development of knowledge-based economies and societies. National governments, firms, international agencies and regional organizations, like the European University Association (EUA), have all generated a swag of policies and programs intended to contribute to knowledge creation at the high end of the value chain.

The EUA have recently released their report, Creativity in Higher Education, on the EUA Creativity Project that ran over 2006-2007. The report offers an implicit critique of approaches to learning in higher education establishments, arguing that “the complex questions of the future are not going to be solved ‘by the book’, but by creative, forward looking individuals and groups who are not afraid to question established ideas and are able to cope with the insecurity and uncertainty this entails”. The Report also adds that creativity is linked to creative individuals, but it also results from interaction among individuals.

The Report goes on to offer a number of key challenges and recommendations to higher education institutions. These include more interdisciplinary learning opportunities; greater exposure of those within the academy to the outside world and to risk taking; to engage in more forward looking activities rather than being preoccupied with the past; to promote the idea of the university as a learning organization; and to promote creativity through local, regional, national and European policies.

This is a very particular formulation that not only eschews the value of knowing from and about our past, but it is caught in the paradox of how to promote both sharing and competitiveness. Higher education institutions, along with the faculty and students who study in them, are governed to be highly competitive and increasingly individualized through assessment and benchmarks. So, if creativity and innovation is linked to the development of sharing and other cooperative learning practices, then there are major pedagogical as well as governance challenges ahead facing higher education institutions.

Susan Robertson