British Universities being transformed by hard-working foreign students

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Aug 28 14:43:19 UTC 2005

We're only here for the BA

By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent
(Filed: 28/08/2005)

The second-year law student awoke at the crack of midday, put on his
father's 1970s tuxedo and set off to consume large quantities of cheap
cocktails, determined to outdrink his 18-stone, rugby-playing housemate.
At 3am, he was "rudely awakened" by the cleaning staff, mopping up the
pool of vomit that had been his bed for the night. Such debauchery,
described by an undergraduate in the Student Survival Guide published in
2001, once typified university life. But the stereotype of the
beer-guzzling, duvet-loving idler is under threat from an influx of
hard-working, abstemious foreigners which is transforming the face of the
student body in Britain.

Ying Wang, from the Fujian Province, in the south of China, is one such
new arrival. Ying gained 10lb in her first year on campus because of
stodgy canteen food - but that is where her similarity with the
traditional image of the bacchanalian undergraduate ends. She has never
been drunk and has never missed the dreaded 9am tutorial. "Before I came
to the UK, I met a British boy who was on his gap year in China," said
Ying, 20, who is studying media and advertising at the University of East
London. "He said if he had nothing to do, he liked to get up late, and if
he had lots of things to do, he got up even later - it made me laugh.
People are more relaxed here and do go to the campus bar. I go out maybe
once a week and have a pint of Guinness, but it is very bitter and I don't
really like the taste. I have never had a hangover."

It may not be the pub culture that is attracting them, but British Council
figures show that there has been an enormous growth in overseas students
coming to the UK in the past 10 years. There are more than 325,000 foreign
students in British universities, mostly from China, Greece, America,
France, Germany and India. Growing markets include eastern Europe and
Nigeria. By 2020, the figure is predicted to top 800,000. This makes the
UK a global leader, second only to the United States, in the provision of
education to students from other countries. Earlier this year, Gordon
Brown, the Chancellor, said that selling English education was the
fastest-growing national export, contributing a whopping 10.3 billion a
year to the economy.

In the notoriously underfunded sector of tertiary education, universities
are falling over themselves to welcome these students - and the money they
bring. Ying, and others like her, who pay fees of 7,000 a year are an
attractive proposition, while foreign students studying medicine and
sciences can pay up to 15,000 a year. British and EU students pay 1,150.
Across the board they provide more than 500 million in revenue to their
universities. Such is their contribution that a slight drop in the number
applying this year, possibly caused by a controversial rise in visa costs,
has been described by vice-chancellors as "extremely worrying".

To ensure a constant supply, elite institutions and former polytechnics
are ardently courting overseas students, establishing offices in far-flung
places such as Beirut, the Lebanon and Ningbo, in China. Local newspapers
in Borneo are full of advertisements extolling the virtues of studying in
the UK. Essex and Nottingham Trent Universities now employ companies to
find overseas students and prepare them for study in the West. According
to Ying, one of 4,500 international students from 110 countries studying
at the University of East London, the enduring reputation of British
education is one of the main reasons for choosing the UK. "England is
famous for its degree and research programmes," she said. "As a country,
too, I think it is more attractive than the States, which I think would be
too stressful."

Layal Ftouni, 23, from the Lebanon, agrees: "I came to the UK because the
education system is well-known worldwide to be one of the best. In the 11
months I have been here, I have learnt so much and made friends from all
over the world." As the campaigns pay dividends, the mix of nationalities,
cultures, ethnicities and religions on UK campuses is increasingly having
an impact on student life. Changing trends are demonstrated by the
dwindling numbers drawn by the sticky carpets and glass-ringed tabletops
of the traditional Student Union bar.

For the first time this year, Leicester University reported that it had
sold more coffee than lager, while the student guild at Aston University,
in Birmingham, plans to transform one of its three bars into a juice and
noodle outlet because of the decline in alcohol revenue. Cheap tequila
nights are no longer enough to put bottoms on bar stools.  Student union
entertainment officers have never been busier as the focus shifts to
"event" nights at which music, comedy or "world" food, rather than
alcohol, are the main attraction.

At Sheffield University, where 17 per cent of the intake is from overseas,
there is a non-smoking bar especially for postgraduates and international
students and the Coffee Revolution shop run by the student union has
proved an instant hit. Gajendri Raviprakash, the international students'
officer, one of only five at UK universities, said: "When I first came, I
was shocked that people did not stop drinking, but you get used to that
and you drink also - though never to the same extent.

"Being from Malaysia, I found it relatively easy to integrate. Many
international students tend to stick together, though, which is something
we are trying to change." In a recent survey of 5,000 overseas
undergraduates by the UK Council for International Education, difficulties
with the English language and mixing with UK students were cited more than
any other concerns. But many do manage to "hold their own" among their
British peers. Tom Cowan, 19, from London, and his friend James Revis, 19,
from Corfu, in Greece, met at their hall of residence at Leeds
Metropolitan University and will share a house this term.

Tom, who is studying sports science, said: "A lot of international
students, especially those who are here for a semester, do tend to huddle
together. You say hello in the canteen, but they tend to go around in a
group and you don't really see them at night. But James did his A-levels
in England and his English is really good. He has other Greek friends, but
he hangs out with everybody and does what we do." Overall, foreign
students express high levels of satisfaction with their university days
and cash-strapped universities are more than happy to continue to take
their money. However, recent announcements by Manchester, Oxford,
Cambridge, and Imperial College, in London, of their intention to
"vigorously" recruit overseas student numbers have led to fears that there
will be a corresponding cut-back in the number of places available to
British students.

Vice-chancellors deny that a trade-off exists, saying that the intake of
domestic recruits is limited by Government funding rules that fix the
number of students an institution can take. Universities that fall five
per cent above or below the target are fined. Meanwhile, some tutors are
concerned that academic standards could be threatened by large numbers of
foreign students whose education levels might not be equivalent to those
of their British counterparts. Although proficient in English, some can
struggle with understanding lecturers and writing essays.

Frank Furedi, a professor of social policy at Kent University, said that
although a robust international student culture was desirable, the
scramble to secure lucrative overseas fees could lead to a lowering of
entry requirements. "Flexibility in admissions should not be driven by
narrow financial imperatives," he said. "As matters stand, we are in
danger of sending out signals that fee-paying overseas students can buy
their way in, which can only have a corrosive effect on academic life."
Two such schemes at Oxford University give American students the "dreaming
spires" experience for between 10,000 and 13,300 a year. The cash - and a
decent grade-point average - gives hundreds of "associate" and "visiting"
students short-term access to 24 colleges without the inconvenience of
exams or interviews with notoriously hard-to-please admission tutors.

Christine Bateman, the British Council's director of education UK
marketing, insisted, however, that there was no hard evidence to suggest
that entry requirements for full degree programmes were being compromised:
"The criteria for international students is very clear," she said. "There
are entry points and standards that people have to achieve. Students need
to get to a certain level of English and many universities offer
English-language courses in conjunction with degree courses. Foreign
students also know they have to work hard to do their studies here, which
is perhaps why they are less likely to be seen in the student bar."
Indeed, some vice-chancellors argue that it is the pursuit of academic
excellence that is driving their foreign recruitment drives. Sir Richard
Sykes, the rector of Imperial College, where 36 per cent of the intake are
foreign students, said more high-quality international students would help
to maintain the university's top 14 world ranking. "Students from overseas
are often more capable than domestic candidates, particularly in the
subjects we study here," he said.

"If you take a candidate from the UK with an A in maths and one from
Singapore with an A in maths, the student from Singapore will probably be
better educated. They also work very hard, particularly the Chinese
students. They pull everybody else up, if anything," he said. It would
seem that the only plan that foreign students have for the bar involves
raising it.

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