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Uk's Position as a Leader in Higer Education Under Threat?

BritCham / CBBC
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Source: The Guardian

With recent changes to visa regimes and tuition fee reform, there are fears that the UK’s competitive edge in the higher education sector is under threat.

Higher education has played a major role in the growth of the UK’s export of services. Last year it counted for £5.3 billion, or 3 % of total service exports. The number of foreign students coming to the UK also grew rapidly. In 2008-2009 period there were just under 370,000 foreign students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate degrees at UK universities- representing an increase of 16% over five years. More than 47,000 of these came from China, placing the UK second after the US in chosen study destination) and many universities are exporting higher education to developing countries by setting up overseas campuses. Home to three of the world’s top 10 institutions and 29 of the top 200 (according to the Times Higher Education supplement), the UK has a strong reputation when it comes to quality of teaching and learning.

However, Britain’s status as a world leader is under threat. Its performance is slipping in international league tables and trailing international standards; it has dropped to mid-table in the OECD's rankings and is now below the international average. Whatsmore, policy changes regarding visas and funding may exacerbate this downward spiral.

Tighter visa regime

The government has proposed reducing net migration from its current level of around 240,000 to "tens of thousands". The majority of this reduction is likely to be done through restrictions on non-EU work, family and student migration. To achieve this target net migration via student routes will have to fall by almost 88,000 a year by 2015. Much of this anticipated squeeze will undoubtedly fall on countries where growth is expanding most rapidly. The only hope is that the government abandons its unachievable target when it realises the damage it is placing on the UK’s HE sector.

Spending on Higher Education

Britain’s spending on higher education is below the OECD average of 1.5%. Although at 1.3% of GDP in 2007, it pales in comparison to the US which spent 3.1% of GDP in the same year. Although overall expenditure has risen, public spending has fallen The UK government spent 0.7% of GDP on higher education in 2000 but just 0.5% in 2007, representing a fall in the share contributed by the state from 68% in 2000 to 36% in 2007. This trend is set to continue with the Browne review being used to replace cuts to the government's overall higher education budget.

The university experience for international students.

There is worry that changes will place an even bigger strain on the experience of international students. Financially, students from outside the EU have to prove that they have over £7,000 in the bank as well as paying £255 for a student visa. Alongside this there is a risk that the quality of international students’ facilities will decrease. In many universities international student facilities are often second best to those of home students, and many may find their provisions squeezed as the hike in tuition fees will result increasing demands from domestic students who question what they are paying for.

As it currently stands, the UK’s universities are second to only the US and are a popular destination for Chinese students. However, if the UK stops becoming a welcoming place for these students and government visa and funding reforms place this under threat, it is likely that the UK will lose out to other countries resulting in a major loss of revenue stream.

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