Europe challenges US for foreign students--Continental universities add more courses in English and step up their recruiting

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 27 15:54:17 UTC 2007

  From the issue dated September 28, 2007 Europe Challenges U.S. for Foreign

*Continental universities add more courses in English and step up their


Like many Chinese students, one of the first things Guo Weiqiang looked for
when he decided to study abroad was a place where he could improve his
language skills. "Everyone wants to speak English in China," he says. But
while many of his friends took the obvious route and applied to American
universities, Mr. Weiqiang chose a different path: He decided to go to
Finland. His university in his home city of Beijing, the Capital University
of Economics and Business, has several exchange programs with Haaga-Helia
University of Applied Sciences, in Helsinki, and all of the courses he
wanted to take were in English.

Mr. Weiqiang, who goes by the nickname Gary and whose shaggy hair, hooded
gray sweatshirt, and faded jeans would look at home on any American campus,
thinks the tendency of his peers to focus on the United States is
shortsighted. "In my mind, Europe will overtake America" as China's main
trade partner, he says. But he also admits that his decision to spend a year
in Finland was not entirely objective. "I just prefer Europe over America,"
he says with a shrug. His is an increasingly common sentiment among
international students. Although the United States remains the world's
preferred destination for students looking to earn degrees abroad, it is
ceding ground to its rivals in Western Europe. Britain has long been the
United States' main competitor for international students, but Continental
countries like the Netherlands, France, Germany — and yes, Finland — are
increasingly popular destinations.

Europe is "waking up," says Bernd Wächter, director of the Brussels-based
Academic Cooperation Association, "to the fact that there is a global
education market, and to the fact that things like marketing and recruitment
are not dirty and unethical activities." A confluence of events has brought
about this interest. A growing number of Continental universities are using
English in the classroom; European governments and institutions are more
aggressively marketing their education overseas; universities are setting up
more partnerships with foreign institutions to create pipelines for
prospective students; and virtually all European nations are synchronizing
their degree programs so that what was once a hodgepodge of degrees is now
more accessible to foreign students. Some countries, such as Britain and the
Netherlands, have also extended the amount of time foreign graduates can
stay in the country and work.

Europe's heightened focus on international students is driven by the pursuit
of both dollars and diversity. As European nations struggle to finance their
largely public higher-education systems, some countries are turning to
fee-paying foreign students as one way to augment their coffers. But
educators insist that money is not the main goal, saying that their
motivation is similar to that of Americans — they want talent and cultural
vibrancy on their campuses. The tendency of overseas students, particularly
at the graduate level, where much of Europe's English-language education is
concentrated, to specialize in subjects that are falling out of favor with
home-grown students, such as the hard sciences, also makes foreign students
increasingly important to the survival of some departments. And a number of
countries with aging populations, such as Finland, see foreign students as
way to fill university seats.

*Language Fluency Not Required*

The shift toward English is the longest-standing of the various factors
bringing more foreign students to Western Europe, and perhaps the most
significant. In the 1950s, the Netherlands became the first non-Anglophone
country in Europe to teach courses in English and today offers 1,300
programs in the language. Germany offers more than 500 degree programs in
English, catering to its 250,000 international students. In Denmark, one
fourth of all university courses are now offered in English.

Even France, with its deep-seated scorn for the creeping Anglicization of
its national language, assures foreign students in its marketing brochures
that they "no longer need to be fluent in French to study in France."
Finland, while much less visible than those countries, offers a telling
illustration of how deeply committed many European universities are to
developing an international student body. The Nordic nation of just over
five million people offers 400 English-language graduate programs at its 20
universities and 29 polytechnic institutions.

"As a small country, we know we are dependent on knowledge produced outside
the country," says Anita Lehikoinen, who oversees higher education at the
Finnish Ministry of Education. "The only way we can attract students is to
offer courses in English." The 9,000 degree-seeking foreign students and
7,100 exchange students enrolled in 2005 represent just a fraction of
Finland's 305,000 students, but the country has embraced English as one of
the keys to Finnish higher education's future. Like other Western European
nations, Finland faces the demographic time bomb of a rapidly aging
population and low birth rate, and universities will soon be increasingly
dependent on foreign students to fill their lecture halls.

"Our goal is to double the number of degree-seeking international students
here by 2010," says Ms. Lehikoinen. Some graduate courses in Finland are
already dominated by foreign students. At a two-hour University of Helsinki
morning lecture on "The Evolution of Shape" this spring, by Jukka Jernvall,
a biology professor, none of the handful of students in the room were
Finnish. The 46 slides that flashed across the projection screen all had
English captions. The growing number of foreign students at Finnish
universities has many benefits, says Mr. Jernvall, who also teaches courses
at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Finns are famously
taciturn, which can pose frustrations for professors seeking to elicit
discussion, he says, and adding foreigners to the mix often livens things

"Bringing in foreign students is a key form of outreach" and will yield some
of the positive dividends American universities have reaped for so many
years, he says. "One of the strengths of the United States is that people
move around, they form personal and scientific networks, and there's a
dynamism you get from that."

*Making the Pitch*

To attract overseas students, universities — and entire countries — are
marketing their offerings in ways that even a decade ago would have been
anathema to Europe's staid higher-education culture. Aggressive recruitment
strategies, complete with glossy brochures, inviting online tours, and
departments staffed with foreign-recruitment officers, are all relatively
new to a region that has traditionally looked no farther than neighboring
towns to populate its universities.

A number of countries provide centralized services — available online —
designed to be a first port of call for students considering studying
abroad. These sites tell students about the country itself, study options in
English, visa and work regulations, and the costs students can expect to

Finland's ambitious campaign is coordinated through its Centre for
International Mobility, which offers prospective international students
comprehensive information through brightly colored brochures such as "Why
Finland? Some of the Many Reasons for International Students to Choose

Some European countries are also setting up overseas outposts. The German
Academic Exchange Service, a government-financed organization that promotes
international educational cooperation, has branch offices and information
centers in three mainland Chinese cities and Hong Kong, among other places,
helping it to attract roughly 30,000 Chinese students to German universities
each year. The Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in
Higher Education has Asian branch offices in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam,
which provide information about degree programs, scholarships for which
international students might be eligible, and immigration rules.

Although they are essentially competing for the same students, European
universities also work together, collaborating through road shows or joint
fairs, says Mr. Wächter, of the Academic Cooperation Association, an
independent organization focused on improving academic cooperation within
Europe and between institutions in Europe and abroad.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-member European Union,
has organized seven European higher-education fairs across Asia in
conjunction with the British, French, German, and Dutch study-abroad
organizations. Dozens of universities are participating.

Aamer Iqbal Bhatti, an engineering professor at Mohammad Ali Jinnah
University's Islamabad campus, says Pakistani students are finding out about
the attractions of Europe partly through word of mouth, but also because
countries such as Germany are relatively strong, economically, which means
that students are more likely to find jobs there after they graduate. He
also said that some British universities, which have held fairs in Pakistan,
offered "on-the-spot admissions."

*Following the Money*

Money is an increasingly important factor in the Europeans' drive to recruit
foreign students. Historically, tuition has either been nonexistent or
nominal in Europe, and in most countries, a college education is still free.
But as government budgets shrink and expenses grow, universities across the
continent are wrestling with the reality that they need to find other
sources of income. The Netherlands and Denmark recently began charging
tuition to foreigners.

Britain is the most extreme example. British universities began charging
tuition a decade ago, and in September 2006, a controversial increase went
into effect that allowed universities in England to charge up to about
$6,000 a year. The rates apply to students from Britain and other other
European Union nations, but foreign students can be charged even more.

Britain, not coincidentally, is the most aggressive of the European nations
in recruiting foreign students, and the most public about how important
these students are to the financial health of its higher education.

Over the next four years, Finland — which does not charge tuition for
domestic or foreign students — will allow universities to transform from
entirely public institutions to quasi-private ones, paving the way for the
likely imposition of tuition in many graduate programs. Universities have
lobbied for the ability to charge foreigners tuition, and that eventuality
clearly underlies some of the efforts to boost foreign numbers.

Increasing tuition brings with it, of course, the risk that students might
seek a cheaper education elsewhere. Markus Laitinen, who directs
international affairs at the University of Helsinki, says that universities
have to be careful not to flood their campuses with foreign students simply
because they see them as sources of revenue.

"We need continuity, a long-term perspective," he says. "We have to look
farther than the next academic season."

For some countries, such as Britain and the Netherlands, the financial
benefits of attracting large numbers of foreign students are undoubtedly
part of what motivates ambitious recruitment efforts. But, says Mr. Wächter,
more lofty considerations are a factor for all European countries. "It's the
old idea of having ambassadors of the country in the future," he says. "It's
about considerations of national prestige and internationalization." Section: International Volume 54, Issue 5, Page A29


Harold F. Schiffman

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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