Recent reports suggest that a growing number of prospective home students in the UK are looking to switch allegiance to the US, driven away by prohibitive rises in tuition fees and cuts in government funding. But how widespread is this trend and what are its implications for the 36,000 Indian students who enrol each year at UK universities?
While the number of UK students crossing the Atlantic is certainly growing (from 8,274 in 2004 to 8,861 in 2008 according to Institute of International Education), this trend must be placed in its proper context. The total number of international students worldwide grew from about 2 million to 3.3 million worldwide between 2001 and 2008, an increase of 65% in seven years. Compared to this, the 7.1% growth rate of UK students heading to the US looks rather less striking. The UK has traditionally been an importer of international students, but its role as an exporter will inevitably increase in the coming years. As the fee differential between leading US and UK institutions shrinks, the cultural reluctance of UK students to consider overseas study is being overcome.
Yet with average annual fees at leading US universities topping $35,000, UK students are also considering the high-quality English-language education in destinations like Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Ireland and The Netherlands. Higher education is big business for many countries, especially Australia where it is the number one service export. UK students disillusioned by the trebling of home tuition fees will certainly not be short of alternatives. AMERICAN universities dominate world rankings and offer an incomparable range of options. UK students will also receive a broader education, encompassing numerous subjects at Major and Minor level, rather than the narrower focus of the UK model. Top universities such as Harvard and Yale offer needs-blind admission and substantial financial aid packages that offset their exorbitant annual fees.
However, the UK system is far from being a sinking ship. Students at leading UK universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and LSE receive substantial amounts of individual attention from leading academics.