At top when taught, not on research

19 Oct

London, Oct. 18: Indians make up the largest group of foreign students in the UK’s higher degree courses that are “taught” but they fall to the seventh place when it comes to such courses involving research, according to a report.

The report, titled Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education and published yesterday by Universities UK, confirms what has been suspected for long: India and China are the key suppliers of foreign students to British higher education institutes.

The figures in the report bring out the dependence of UK universities on foreign students and raise red flags over how the institutes are losing out to competitors elsewhere — a timely reminder when the British government is tightening student visa norms.

The report has thrown up a dichotomy between “taught” and “research” courses as far as Indians are concerned.

A higher degree in the UK is a qualification above bachelor’s — either a master’s such as MSc, MA, or MPhil or a doctorate. In a higher degree (taught), students sit through a classroom programme of lectures and are assessed through exams, although there may be a component of writing a thesis or a dissertation.

In a higher degree (research), students learn research methodology and contribute to a research project supervised by faculty. Students have to present the results of their work through a thesis. The University of Sunderland in the UK describes a research degree as “time-consuming and demanding”, and says “persistence and dedication are needed to bring it to a successful completion”.

Observers in the UK felt that the difficulty in qualifying for scholarships may have resulted in fewer Indian students in research courses. It is easier to gain admission in taught courses by paying fees, which more Indians can afford now, than in research courses, they said.

However, some Indian academicians said a lack of familiarity with the concept of pursuing a master’s degree through research may also be a factor driving Indian students towards the taught degrees rather than research degrees.

“The vast majority of Indian students take up master’s programmes through lectures, and there is no research component whatsoever,” said Jayaram Chengalur, a scientist at the National Centre for Radio Astronomy, Pune. “But exactly how big a role this is playing (in the observed patterns in the UK) is unclear,” Chengalur said.

“Many years ago, a few universities in India such as Mumbai University did offer master’s in science programmes fully through research,” said Subhash Lakhotia, professor of zoology at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

But most have now stopped such programmes, Lakhotia said, although some MSc courses call on students to write a thesis or dissertation in the second year. “I think students were concerned at how MSc through research would be viewed as it didn’t come with the traditional quantified marks-based assessment offered in most universities,” he said.

The statistics in UK report suggest there could be safety in numbers for foreign students as the British government enforces stricter entry norms.

“One of the main trends over the last 10 years has been the success of UK higher education institutions in attracting international students,” says the report. There were 126,720 non-European Union students at UK institutions in 2000-01. By 2009-10 this had rocketed to 280,760 — an increase of more than 121 per cent.

The UK government wants to cut down on visas for “bogus” students, especially from countries such as India, but many universities would be in an even greater financial crisis if they saw incomes brought in by foreign pupils drop significantly.

It also does not help that the government, which is naturally keen to keep out would-be troublemakers, wants teaching staff to report non-attendance at lectures or dodgy behaviour among pupils.

But it is the numbers that tell the story. In the end, it is the money that will substantially determine government policy, though Britain has traditionally wanted decision-makers of the future taught at British universities, especially at Oxford and Cambridge. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have all been Oxbridge products.

The report says: “In 2009/10 China (excluding Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao) provided the highest numbers of students on first degree, postgraduate research and other undergraduate courses and the second highest numbers on taught higher degree and other postgraduate courses.”

It goes on: “India provided the highest number of students on taught higher degree courses, and Ireland did so for other postgraduate courses.”

Indians historically like to come to the UK though anecdotal evidence suggests a proportion are bogus students. Others merely want to stay on and settle permanently. On the other hand, UK universities would be hard hit if those discouraged from coming to Britain increased the numbers going to the US. For the UK, higher education is today big business.

In 2008-09, there were 251,310 international students, the report reveals. Between 2008-09 and 2009-10 alone, there was an 11.7 per cent increase in students from outside the EU. The 11.7 per cent increase in international students in one year alone is four times the increase seen in UK student numbers in the same period.

In 2008-09, there were 2,027,085 UK students at UK universities, compared with 2,087,615 in 2009/10 — an increase of only 3 per cent.

The report, supervised by Prof.Paul ’Prey, vice-chancellor of the University of Roehampton, does say that the UK’s share of the international student market has fallen since other countries have become more competitive in trying to attract them.

It also raises concerns about the UK government’s crackdown on student visas, noting that the growth trend of recent years “does not include the impact of recent changes to non-EU student visas, which may result in a greater loss of market share in the future”.

Overall, international students from outside the EU now account for 11.3 per cent of all students at UK institutions, compared with 6.5 per cent in 2000-01.

“There have been significant changes in the relative popularity of different subject areas,” the report notes.

“Over the period, large increases are seen in students studying clinical and biological sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and architecture, building and planning. The only subjects to see decreases in the absolute number of students between 2003-04 and 2009-10 are computer science and historical and philosophical studies. Both, however, show increases in the last year.”

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