Call yourself cosmopolitan?
One of the most exciting features of a university is its embrace
of global influences. Ideas have always travelled well across national
boundaries, and universities have often been the first institutions
to welcome them.
Since the beginning of the university system, scholars and students
have moved from one country to another, contributing to the overall
intellectual development of humanity.
The pursuit of knowledge requires intellectual contact, which is
why academics have often been so open to cosmopolitan influences.
Academic freedom and intellectual experimentation are underpinned
by values that aspire to a universalist outlook. That is why a "real"
university possesses an internationalist orientation.
It is only now that we are beginning to discuss the international
role of the British university openly. Sadly, this discussion is
not the outcome of an intense debate about the global exchange of
knowledge. Instead, it is driven by the imperative of recruiting
more international students for cash-strapped British universities.
Many believe that the financial wellbeing of universities depends
on gaining a large slice of the booming global student market.
The British Council hopes that by 2020 the number of overseas students
seeking to study at British universities will triple to 850,000.
Many universities are hoping to establish a bridgehead in Asia,
which is the fastest growing sector of the overseas student market.
For those concerned with the funding problems facing British universities,
the global market represents an opportunity. For others, it poses
a problem. For some time, the government has promoted the view that
every young person has the right to go to university.
But this policy of using the university as an instrument of social
engineering does not sit easily with the imperatives of global competition.
According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, as many as
240,000 extra university places may be required to meet student
demand by 2010. It also predicts that by the end of the decade,
there could be about 30,000 (up from the current 5,000) students
in British universities from countries that have recently joined
the European Union.
The prediction of an imminent influx of large numbers of East European
students has led some to ask questions about whether there will
be enough places for British students. There were reports that a
flood of East European students would take places that would otherwise
have gone to local students, and at the British taxpayer's expense.
The Daily Mail headline "University invasion from the new EU
states" summed up the paper's parochial attitude.
Yet the tension between the role of the university as a global
institution and its role as a vehicle of British social policy remains
unresolved. The recent conflict between Middlesex University and
London's Haringey council illustrates this tension. Haringey council
is reportedly furious at the decision by Middlesex to abandon its
plans to build a multimillion-pound campus in Tottenham. Middlesex
is dubious about attracting students - particularly high-fee-paying
overseas ones - to Tottenham. It is likely to look for a more salubrious
Haringey portrays this decision as a blow to the local community
- one that will make it difficult for youngsters to gain access
to higher education.
For the local council, the university represents a community institution.
For Middlesex, it serves a wider purpose.
In the current climate, this tension is unlikely to be resolved.
What we need are community colleges that serve local needs and universities
that are truly globally oriented - not institutions that pretend
to be both.
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 28 May 2004