Drapers’ lecture 2017 – Whose property are international students and researchers?

On 25 January I popped along to the annual Drapers’ Lecture at QMUL to hear Dr Jo Beall, Director of Education and Society at the British Council, talk about ‘Intellectual Property: Rights, Risks and Rebellions in International Higher Education‘.  I was hoping it wouldn’t actually be about IP (copyright etc… yawn), and it wasn’t… I think the two nerds in front of me were pretty disappointed. In asking ‘whose property are international scholars?’ we question the implications of the international movement of students and researchers for the creation of knowledge, national economies, and competition between nations and institutions for the brightest and best minds. We take dominant ideas about the purpose of universities and the aim of higher education, and tie them in knots.

The benefits of knowledge creation act on many levels below the big picture of development and progress. Individual researchers gain prestige, universities (through the REF) and research centres benefit through funding awards. These benefits appear to increase when we collaborate internationally. Nobel prize winners tend to be internationally mobile, and papers with authors from more than one country tend to get more citations (correlations not causation, obvs). 47% of UK doctoral students are international. The UK has always ranked highly in the so-called knowledge economy; we may have less than 1% of the world’s population but we produce 16% of the most cited papers (it helps that we speak and write in English, of course). But we’re definitely not resting on our laurels or thinking about giving someone else a turn… the competition is still very much on. Countries leading with us on research impact include the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Leading on publication volume are our four top collaborative research partners – the US, Germany, France, and Italy – so it will be interesting to see the impact of our exit from the EU.  Emerging contenders in the research arena correspond with the ‘BRIC’ group of countries at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development: China, Malaysia, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Worldwide, demand for tertiary level education tends to be linked to demographics; high population growth, youth ‘bulges’ and a low supply are obvious factors.  International student growth in the UK is still quite far behind the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany, and the loss of the UK post-study visa is thought to have limited the diversity of our international intake. There has been a marked decrease in the number of students coming from India, for example. A lot of our student ‘flow’ comes from Europe, so Brexit will impact here as well. International student mobility is strongly correlated with historic and cultural links; if we already trade goods with a country, we tend to trade students with them too.

The British Council has been doing some research on transnational education and its impact on individuals and educational systems. Transnational education often involves collaborative partnerships between HEIs in different countries, ‘flying faculty’, offshore campuses, online learning and so on, usually with the aim of providing a ‘quality’ education at a lower cost (drawing on the reputation and teaching methods of the host institution) plus cultural and/or language benefits. Transnational education places questions of public/private and civil engagement in a yet another different light, and has prompted criticisms of commercialisation and commodification. Ultimately, countries tend to prefer long-term partnerships that assist them in developing their own HE system.

One interesting question to discuss around international teaching and learning is: What do we think we are exporting? And what should we be exporting? ‘Should’ questions are conditional, of course – if we want to achieve X, what should we be exporting? Similarly, if we want to achieve X, should we continue to expand higher education? It’s the X that I find intriguing and incredibly elusive. Hence my thesis.

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