The Knowledge Business

In 2009, The Times Good University Guide stated that “Nottingham is the nearest Britain has to a truly global university.” Sounds promising, but what price are those already studying paying to keep Nottingham a truly international institution? And are the university’s decisions in this area motivated by this? A specific objective of Nottingham’s University Plan 2007 – 2010 with regard to internationalisation is to increase the flow of international students to the UK campus. But, cynical as it sounds, sifting through the ‘worldwide talent pool’ appears to be a scheme driven by business – charges are not capped by the government for those abroad, so there is no limit on tuition fees for overseas students. Is this desire for increased internationalisation borne out of a simple desire to make more money?

In the current economic environment, universities nationwide are seen increasingly as businesses, where potential students must weigh up the monetary costs against the potential benefits of their degree qualification. Far from emphasising the importance of traditional scholarly achievement, the worry is that universities are becoming more and more commercially centred. On the webpage for London-based college Central St. Martins, the problem is directly discussed. “You may wonder why there is such a difference between ‘Home’ and ‘Overseas’ fees,” it reads, “The reason is that the UK government contributes a significant amount of money to UK universities for education, but this money is only for ‘Home’ students. As a result, international students are required to pay the whole fee by themselves.” Universities in Scotland compromise ideals of fair admission in an even greater manner: only residents in Scotland or EU countries outside of the UK are exempt from paying tuition fees. Other UK and overseas students have to pay £1,820 and a shocking £9,900 respectively per annum. It would seem that international students are picking up the financial slack for the rest of us.

Lord Browne’s recent Independent Review into Higher Education Funding and Student Finance has called for a radical shakeup of the system, although unsurprisingly not in favour of the student body. The Browne Review proposed the removal of the current cap on fees for home students of £3,290 per year, “allowing universities to put quality first and charge accordingly.” As such, the price of what is often less than 10 hours of teaching per week seems set to skyrocket. Surely, with increased levels of fees, the quantity – as well as the quality – of education received by the average student should be a key priority. The aim of the report was to secure a sustainable future for higher education – an expected but nevertheless cruel outcome for those overseas. According to the BBC, fees for international students in the UK rose by 5% in the past year. Despite the rise in fees, this has not prevented a steady and ongoing increase in the number of international students coming to the UK over the years; if more revenue does continue to be generated in this way, we can hope that at least the money made will be spent on increasing standards of higher education in this country for all.

The crux of the matter seems to be the reputation of Britain as a desirable place to learn for those abroad. The British Council, which promotes the UK as a study destination, welcomes the increase in visitors, as they provide an increasingly important revenue stream – students whom universities can charge whatever they wish. This isn’t a cycle that will be broken in the foreseeable future; it’s a predictable, but for the government, successful cycle. For now, the high status of the British university will continue to encourage applications from overseas students who are recognised less for their academic merit and more for the money they have little choice but to pay.

Emma Harwood

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