Trouble ahead? US Council of Graduate Schools survey reports overseas student applications slow to 3%

A US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) survey out this week paints a potentially worrying picture for all countries dependent on income generated by transborder higher education, whether because of fees income, or as a result of the brain-power transnational students contribute to R&D in the host economy. As we know, many graduate students, particularly from India and China, have tended to stay on in their host country once completing their graduate studies, making an important contribution to the host country’s economic productivity. However, what happens if student numbers decline?

According to this 2008 CGS survey, the number of foreign students applying to American graduate schools increased by only 3 per cent from 2007 to 2008, following growth of 9 per cent last year and 12 per cent in 2006. This is despite considerable efforts over the past couple of years in reviewing the visa restrictions imposed after 9/11. This had not only discouraged potential applicants, but very lengthy processing times created a disincentive to potential applicants. Other efforts to turn around the decline in students coming to the US included more funding for international students and attention to recruitment. What, then, is going on? Is this evidence of trouble ahead? Let’s, first, look at the pattern reported in the CGS 2008 Survey.

While the US still has the lion’s share of the global graduate market (65% of graduate students studying abroad study in the US), the CGS report (see table below) shows that while there was strong growth – 12 per cent – in applications from both China and the Middle East, these have to be compared to gains of 19 per cent and 17 per cent last year, respectively. There was no growth in applications from India after a 12 per cent increase last year. China and India are the two countries that annually send the most graduate students to the US.

In terms of fields of study, applications to sciences and engineering – fields considered critical to maintaining US economic competitiveness – are experiencing sharply decelerating rates of growth.

With fewer international applicants in 2008 compared to 2003 to the US, and the total number of international applications down by 16 per cent since that year, policymakers and institutions directly affected must be wondering what more they need to do avoid major trouble ahead. Have current efforts been insufficient? Or, do these developments signal other currents that are not directly linked to the effects of 9/11?

In an interview published by the Financial Times on April 10th, 2008, Bill Russel, Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University, observed:

…many of the nations that typically send a large number of students to US graduate schools – namely China, India, and countries in the Middle East – are rapidly building their own PhD programmes, and that career opportunities in those countries have also expanded. “There are a lot of different changes that are taking place,” he said. “It’s hard to say what the world is going to look like ten years down the road”

GlobalHigherEd has been tracking these developments in the Middle East, Asia and also Europe. As the idea of building knowledge-based economies becomes more and more embedded in government policies, as higher education institutions compete to become world class, as new models for constructing competitive higher education/industry linkages are explored, as the strategies to exploit or return the knowledge and skills of the diasporas are mobilized, and higher education becomes part of the global services market, old linkages will not be sufficient to retain a position as a preferred destination. Instead, governments and institutions will need to review their strategies and build infrastructures that enable them to monitor and advance their interests if they want to be part of the race.

Susan Robertson

University tuition fees – emerging evidence from the UK

University tuition fees are a hot topic across Europe and one not likely to cool down. Indeed, recent European Commission reports support the idea of tuition fees across European universities, though as GlobalHigherEd has also pointed out, low or no fees are also a competitive advantage in the race to secure a share of the global higher education market. Nevertheless, those advancing the ‘fees/fee increase’ argument tend to mobilize one of the following claims:

  • fees (for local, EU and international students) are necessary in order to facilitate a crucial injection of cash into the system enabling Europe to compete more effectively on the global stage;
  • this is the model that underpins the global higher education leader — the US; and
  • fees would bring various Member States within Europe into line – as currently there are a range of patterns making student mobility across Europe more complicated than it should be.

bristol.jpgLast week’s report for the UK-based Sutton Trust, Knowing Where to Study? Fees, Bursaries and Fair Access, conducted by the Institute for Educational Policy Research and Institute for Access Studies (IEPR/IAS), Staffordshire University, paints a rather depressing picture of the consequences of the 2006 fee hike in UK universities for teenagers of poorer families. These include:

  • nearly 2/3rds of young people who decided not to study at higher education institutions cited concerns over the significant debt this would entail;
  • students from poorer families are now significantly more likely to live at home rather than live away (18% in 1998 compared with 56% in 2007);
  • students from families whose incomes were below £35,000 were more likely to consider a local university;
  • students from wealthier families are more likely to move to a university in a different city – opening up greater options for choice guided by the ‘reputation’ of the programme and institution;
  • more than half of the students of poorer families interviewed expected to work between 10 and 20 hours per week; and
  • very few students from poorer families knew about maintenance grants that might enable them to support their university studies.

According to the lead article in the Guardian published on the 14th Feb on this issue, UCAS – the central service for managing applications to UK universities – reported a 7% increase in the overall numbers applying to university. However, this figure appears to disguise the class-based nature of choices in that amongst poorer families this figure is stagnating.

‘Access’ is not the only problem. Today BBC News reported that ‘retention’ – particularly of students from poorer families – is also a big issue. This is despite the UK government spending some £800 million in tackling a problem that clearly goes deeper than the 2006 fee increase. As the Financial Times notes:

Universities and colleges were given £213m in 2004-05 to help students without a family history of university attendance. But 22 per cent of students starting in 2004-05 are forecast to drop out before completing their courses – the same percentage as for 2001-02.

Work commitments, financial concerns and health issues are cited in the literature as important reasons for why students fail to both continue on and complete university studies. The 2006 fee increase, especially when those groups worst affected are unaware of the measures that might help alleviate the problem, must be seen as antagonizing an already existing major problem.

No doubt these findings will be of interest to other European Member States – especially those considering introducing fees. While not all European countries have patterns of access like the UK (that is geographic dispersement), the over-riding findings of the Sutton Trust study is likely to be more widely shared.

To be fair, the UK government, after much heated and very tense debates in the Parliament, finally agreed to put into place a range of forms of fee and living support in order to get the Bill through which enabled fee increases. However it would seem that the Government has not been effective in selling its policy to those it was intended to benefit.

Figures like these, which suggest a stagnating pool of students from poorer families going to university and a solidifying geography of uneven access to higher education, do not sit well with a wider government rhetoric about unlocking the potential of each individual and the nation in order to realise a knowledge-based economy.

Knowledge, the conditions of access and its realisation, must surely be a key ‘knowledge-economy’ strategy to ensure that universities widen rather than narrow opportunities. Unless, of course, we take the European Commission’s view seriously; that there is too much egalitarianism in Europe.

Susan Robertson

Benchmarking ‘the international student experience’

GlobalHigherEd has carried quite a few entries on benchmarking practices in the higher education sector over the past few month – the ‘world class’ university, the OECD innovation scoreboards, the World Bank’s Knowledge Assessment Methodology, Programme of International Student Assessment, and so on.

University World News this week have just reported on an interesting new development in international benchmarking practices – at least for the UK – suggesting, too, that the benchmarking machinery/industry is itself big business and likely to grow.

According to the University World News, the International Graduate Insight Group (or i-graduate) last week unveiled a study in the UK to:

…compare the expectations and actual experiences of both British and foreign students at all levels of higher education across the country. The Welsh Student Barometer will gather the opinions of up to 60,000 students across 10 Welsh universities and colleges. i-graduate will benchmark the results of the survey so that each university can see how its ability to match student expectations with other groupings of institutions, not only in Wales but also the rest of the world.

i-graduate markets itself as:

an independent benchmarking and research service, delivering comparative insights for the education sector worldwide: your finger on the pulse of student and stakeholder opinion.

We deliver an advanced range of dedicated market research and consultancy services for the education sector. The i-graduate network brings international insight, risk assessment and reassurance across strategy and planning, recruitment, delivery and relationship management.

i-graduate.jpg i-graduate have clearly been busy amassing information on ‘the international student experience’. It has collected responses from more than 100,000 students from over 90 countries by its International Student Barometer (ISB)- which they describe as the first truly global benchmark of the student experience. This information is packaged up (for a price) in multiple ways for different audiences, including leading UK universities. According to -i-graduate, the ISB is:

a risk management tool, enabling you to track expectations against the experiences of international students. The ISB isolates the key drivers of international student satisfaction and establishes the relative importance of each – as seen through the eyes of your students. The insight will tell you how expectations and experience affect their loyalty, their likelihood to endorse and the extent to which they would actively encourage or deter others.

Indexes like this, either providing information about one’s location in the hierarchy or as strategic information on brand loyalty, acts as a kind of disciplining and directing practice.

Those firms producing these indexes and barometers, like i-graduate, are also in reality packaging particular kinds of ‘knowledge’ about the sector and selling in the sector. In a recent seminar ESRC-funded seminar series on Changing Cultures of Competitiveness, Dr. Ngai-Ling Sum described these firms as brokering a ‘knowledge brand’ – a trade-marked, for a price, bundle of strategies/tools and insights intended to alter an individual’s, institution’s or nation’s practices, in turn leading to greater competitiveness – a phenomenon she tags to practices that are involved in producing the Knowledge-Based Economy (KBE).

It will be interesting to look more closely at, and report in a future blog on, what the barometer is measuring. For it is the specific socio-economic and political content of these indexes and barometers, as well as the disciplining and directing practices involved, which are important for understanding the direction of global higher education.

Susan Robertson