Learning from London?

I sometimes wonder if it is worth drawing lines and generating comparisons between two seemingly disparate processes that are at work at different scales, and in different countries, but why not – I’m jetlagged with some late night time to spare.

Fig1CGSFirst, the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) released a new report (Findings from the 2009 CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey, Phase III: Final Offers of Admissions and Enrollment), and associated press release, that flags the challenges the US has in attracting foreign students at the levels it once did. The full report (from which Figure 1 to the right is taken) is definitely worth reading. This segment of the final paragraph particularly caught my eye:

Despite the high quality of graduate education in the United States, we cannot continue to assume that our institutions are the number one destination of international graduate students. In the last three years, growth in the numbers of international graduate students coming to the United States has slowed, and now the numbers have flat lined, even though global student mobility has rapidly increased over the last decade. Given this new reality, policymakers and the graduate school community are faced with several key questions if the United States is to remain the destination of choice for international graduate students: Are there national policies that deter international students from coming to the United States for graduate school? How do we make U.S. graduate programs attractive to both domestic and international students? Within the constraints of the current economic situation, what can institutions do to more effectively attract international students to their graduate programs? And, what lessons can we learn from the successes of colleges and universities in other countries in attracting international students to their graduate programs?

Meanwhile, I was reading the Guardian‘s Tuesday education insert today, and one faculty vacancy advertisement also caught my eye: University College London (UCL) “wishes to appoint an International Relations Lecturer to contribute to research and teaching on the MSc in International Public Policy within the Department of Political Science/School of Public Policy“.  Given my interest in international/global public policy, I read through the advertisement to see what the new hire would have to teach, and came across an interesting number:

UCL is a multi-faculty college of the University of London with a population of over 17,000 students from more than 130 different countries. It is ranked by the Times Higher as one of the top five universities worldwide. Founded in 2005, the Department of Political Science has quickly established itself as a leading international centre for political research and came 6th in the UK in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) organised by the British Higher Education Funding Councils – 3rd in terms of the percentage of research deemed to be ‘world leading’ (20%) and ‘internationally excellent’ (45%). It is the only department in the UK centred on graduate teaching and research, and currently has almost 400 Masters students on its programmes.

Nearly 400 (and rising) Masters students from around the world, in a new graduate student only department.  Thus, across the Atlantic, albeit at two vastly different scales, we see flat-lining if not decline (in the US) versus rapid expansion (in UCL, London, UK).  Of course this is but one department’s experience, though I have seen broader signs that the UK has seen significant growth in graduate programmes, including at the Masters level.

LondonNow, if you really wanted to unpack the developmental dynamic further, you would have to explore issues like the context (London, a global city which is also situated within the European Higher Education Area), the national system (which incentivizes departments to create one year taught Masters programs), an emerging sense that higher education is an export industry in the UK, and so on.  But let’s also burrow down to the level of academic practice, as captured in this advertisement, and ask this question: how do faculty members in UK universities like UCL or Oxford or King’s College London balance the need to generate revenue via taught Masters programmes, with the imperative to conduct ever more innovative research (which ideally needs to generate ‘societal impact’ as well), all the while supporting increasingly large numbers of graduate students?

And where do they put them?! By my count this particular department has 16 faculty (17 with this hire), 13 teaching fellows (3 with PhD) and “almost 400” masters students. This equals 25 MA/MSc students per faculty member, or 21 per PhD holder.

I know the quality of higher education is high in the UK, and is likely excellent in this particular department, but are these numbers and proportions (students/faculty) typical at the UK level, manageable for faculty, and reflective of the attractiveness of one year Masters programs (which are not at all common in the US)?

Moreover, are learning outcomes of such programs on par across national boundaries (e.g., the UK versus the US or the Netherlands), and do PhD applicants (e.g., from the US to the UK, or from the UK to the US) come to their PhD programs from the MA/MSc with equitable levels of knowledge and capabilities, all things equal?

If so, then places like the UK (and UCL) are doing something right, and the US can perhaps learn from the UK experience.

If not, however, then it might be time to ask other questions about the nature and implications (especially with respect to quality) of the rapid growth of Masters degrees in London, and the UK more generally.

Can we learn from London, and if so what?

Kris Olds

Creating and enhancing risk in the UK higher education system

If higher education is becoming a global ‘industry’ then it is inevitable risks and rewards will be differentially dispersed, and subject to the turbulence generated by broader structural forces, including global financial machinations. The most tangible of these forces relate to currency exchange rate differentials given that overseas students often pay high fees, and that key market players have come to depend upon these fees to compensate for declining state support (with Australia and the UK apt examples).

Further to my 11 October entry titled ‘Will shifting currency exchange rate differentials (2005-2007) redirect flows of foreign students?’, which appears to be relatively interesting for some viewers of this blog judging on the basis of hit counts, today’s Financial Times has inspired me to revisit this issue. The FT’s article, titled ‘Drop in foreign students may hit universities’, quotes University College London’s provost (Malcolm Grant) as saying the strength of the sterling might damage (in financial terms) his institution (which depends upon 20% of its students to generate overseas fees of between £11,000 and £22,000 per annum). Let’s look at a few relevant numbers in the following graphics.

First, here are the currency exchange rates (1 January 2002 to yesterday via the Pacific Exchange Rate Service) with reference to a British Pound-based indicator, with the UK’s main competitor (the US) noted, as well as the two main sources of foreign (and non-EU) students to the UK’s higher education system.


Now let’s look at the relative dependency of the UK on foreign students in general, and from specific countries. These three graphics are from the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2007 report that we also profiled in September 2007.





As these three graphics note UK universities are heavily dependent upon foreign students, especially from China and India (and Asia more generally).

Finally here is a graphic from a report we profiled on 18 September that is from a new British Council and Education UK report that attempts to identify the “value of educational exports” (using trade in services parlance) to the UK economy.


So dependency upon foreign students in the UK is clear, as is a fast rising and troublesome (for foreign students) British Pound. And given the patterns in this table (that admittedly only focus on England) are likely to be at work today, what we are seeing in Malcolm Grant’s expressed concern is one geographically- and institutionally-specific view on this broader structural dynamic.

As today’s FT article ‘Drop in foreign students may hit universities’ notes:

But if demand stalls at the prestigious London institution, which attracts large numbers of foreign students, other British universities are likely to be affected in the same way.

If he is right, the British economy will be hit. Foreign students provide millions of pounds in invisible exports. Prof Grant said they were also “a major engine for economic growth” because many stayed on and found a job after finishing their studies, contributing to the economy as highly skilled workers.

International undergraduates – defined by British universities as students from outside the EU – also play an important role in boosting the revenues of several of Britain’s elite universities. These include University College, London, ranked the world’s ninth best university in the Times Higher Education Supplement’s league table.

Thus segments of the UK higher education system, and select parts of the country (mainly the Southeast and London), are now creating the noteworthy aggregate figures that the OECD has identified. If so is it not incredibly risky to engender such dependencies given the broad array of roles such universities (and regions) play in society and economy? Compete UK universities feel they must, but on the backs of ever so many fee paying foreign students? The UK’s competitor and model – the USA – is dependent upon foreign students too, though more on a sector- and profession-basis versus such a system-wide basis. And even when leading US universities (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, USC), depend upon relatively large proportions of foreign students they are at much less risk for most are institutions that are also sitting on top of vast reserves in the form of multi-billion dollar endowments as discussed here and here (not to mention being well resourced via external research funding). Does the UK really want to create and enhance such a high level of risk in such a critically important pillar (the publicly-funded higher education system) of society and economy? Or can branding, the perception (and reality, in most cases) of a high quality education, and the persistence of socio-economic networks that funnel students to the UK, mediate the currency effects?

Kris Olds