Blog: Be careful what you wish for - Simon Lebus

Blog: Be careful what you wish for - Simon Lebus

Recent news that there is a rise in the numbers of British students choosing to go to US higher education institutions (HEIs) gives food for thought. The current rate is approximately 10,000 a year, up 8% from the previous year - equivalent to around 2% of the total annual number of UK students going on to higher education – and confirms a trend that has been gaining momentum over several years.

It seems to me that there are three main drivers. The first is, that the cost of a US university education can often be cheaper than the full cost of a UK university experience as the latter can now be around £50k, if maintenance is included. The availability across the pond of large scholarships for students from poorer families, as well as a great many ‘needs-blind’ financial awards for particular types of student open to those on middle incomes, are clearly powerful attractions. Secondly¸ several US HEIs admit on broader grounds than purely academic, making room for students who excel at sports, music and other activities. The third factor is an educational one, namely that US institutions offer four year degree programmes with subject specialisation only taking place after a more broadly based first year, attractive to students who know they want to progress to higher study but are not yet ready to commit to a single specialist subject.

However, the 2% still represents a very small proportion of overall student numbers and one of the great strengths of the UK system remains that it allows for deep specialisation early - not something that suits everyone but good for those who are passionate about a particular subject, or for those who wish to start their career as soon as possible.

More generally, the appetite for international education is increasing across the world, the main beneficiaries of this being universities in the English speaking world. Increasingly, universities around the world are offering English language courses in subjects like engineering at a much lower cost than universities in England. The Erasmus programme reported that over 14, 500 students from the UK studied or worked in Europe in 2012/13.

This appetite for foreign study is obviously good for the US and the rest of Europe but could ultimately have an adverse impact on the UK. It may reduce the pool of secondary school applicants to university - with an eventual knock-on effect of reducing the pool of able undergraduates from which are drawn the post-grad research students who are such an important element of the UK HE sector’s reputation for high quality research.

The government seems to have been attempting to create a market in Higher Education – but focussed more or less exclusively on the UK, in which context it has ignored the possibility that it could end up simply displacing some of the UK’s demand for HE abroad . The old adage of ‘being careful what you wish for’ springs to mind.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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