A heady mix of high ideals and self-interest

Is international education about bringing in business, funding universities or forging bonds and opening minds? The welcoming session of this year’s Going Global 2015, the British Council’s conference for leaders of international higher education, zigzagged across each one of these perspectives.

More than 1,200 leaders of higher education from 70 countries gathered last week in the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, so Jo Johnson, the UK’s new universities and science minister – and brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson – did not have far to walk to deliver the first keynote speech.

The fact that it was his debut speech as a minister spoke volumes about how much value the government places on the internationalisation of higher education and mostly it was measured in pounds sterling.

International students bring in £3.9 billion (US$5.6 billion) in tuition fees, which helps universities to invest in “first class facilities”, the minister said.

“International students also stimulate demand for courses where domestic demand alone can be insufficient to sustain them, ensuring that a wider range of courses are available for all students and that some strategically important courses remain viable.”

“In particular, they help us maintain our first class STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] provision: 47% of postgraduate level students in subjects such as engineering and technology are from non-EU countries,” he said.

London is the most popular destination in the world for overseas students, he said, boasting that for every 100 non-EU students 45 full-time equivalent jobs are created and £4.6 million (US$7 million) generated in UK businesses.

“We will roll out the red carpet for the brightest and best,” he said.

In that regard, he had made it his mission to overcome “misperceptions” about the UK’s attitude to international students and the decline in numbers coming from India, stressing that research showed the satisfaction rate of Indian students once in the UK was 90% and there was no cap on the number of former students who can stay on to work, provided they had a “graduate job”.

The government’s ambition is to increase education exports from £18 billion (US$27 billion) in 2012 to £30 billion (US$46 billion) by 2020, he told the audience.

But it was not just about the wealth created for Britain.

“Today’s international students are tomorrow’s world leaders. They take friendships and loyalties home with them that later become trade links, cultural bonds and diplomatic ties. Nearly 80% of students anticipate developing professional links with the UK.”

But overall it was rather too UK-focused for such an international audience, and surprisingly so for a man who himself spent two periods studying abroad, at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and later at INSEAD, the global business school, at its Europe campus in the forests of Fontainebleau, France – and has lived and worked in India.

Power of partnerships

Testament to the power of international partnerships and mobility came instead from the revered Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who called for leaders of international higher education to support the education reforms in Burma, and help unlock the potential of Burma’s young people.

She spoke via a video link to the more than 1,200 leaders of higher education from 70 countries who had gathered in London for the British Council’s annual higher education conference, Going Global, on 1-2 June.

“For many years during the days when it seemed that democracy was just a faint hope on the horizon, our hopes were kept alive by friends from abroad who made us understand that we had not been forgotten,” she said.

“Now that we are in a position to take a more active part in building up the future of our own country, we want to equip our people in such a way that they will be able to make the best decisions.

“To me, that seems the most important part of education: to help people to make the best decisions. If our young people are taught to make the best possible decisions then we can say that education has succeeded in Burma,” she said.

Suu Kyi said: “The past is the past and it cannot be changed. But the future is in our hands to shape as we wish it to be. And I would like our young people to have the right equipment, the right intellectual, mental and spiritual equipment to shape the country that they want to live in.”

Lifeblood of learning

The British Council’s Chief Executive, Ciarán Devane, emphasised to the international leaders of education present that openness was the “lifeblood of learning” and was essential for higher education to thrive.

“It’s only right to recognise that openness can be a source of discomfort for people – a challenge to their sense of continuity and their understanding of the world. But I also think it is incumbent on all of us in the education sector to be clear that openness is the lifeblood of learning.

“Openness is the foundation for new ideas, it brings frank exchange, strong partnerships and isn’t afraid to champion innovation and new thinking – and in this environment, higher education through learning and research can thrive,” Devane said.

Devane told the delegates that “if there is a ‘global culture’ in any meaningful sense, it has connection, diversity and openness at its core”.

“We acknowledge that all our futures are interwoven, that development and success come from mutual benefit and shared understanding.

“The best solutions to challenges are those created by pooling resources, finding the links between disciplines, and between different parts of the world sharing expertise and bringing a range of perspectives and experiences to bear on conventional ways of doing things,” Devane said.

Another presenter, futurologist Mark Stevenson, author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, reminded the audience that since 1971 there had been a billion-fold increase in the processing power of computers.

He rattled off a list of developments that were previously never thought possible but which had now become reality – the driverless car, the ability to make fuel out of thin air, the life expectancy of 100 among children born in the West today, the 3D printing of cells from human organs – and stressed that new technology would change the way we think forever.

“When the winds of change blow some people build walls, some people build windmills. Our job is to be the windmillers,” he said.