FOLLOWING intervention from the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Reading University was last week forced to remove a claim from its website and marketing literature that it is in “the top 1 per cent” of the world’s universities. This follows a complaint from a student, who said the claim could be misleading and was unsubstantiated.
University rankings are influential for recruitment, particularly for overseas students, by universities in favoured locations, such as Britain, the United States and Australia. In the UK, education is the second-highest earner of invisibles after financial services.
In the QS World University Rankings 2018, Reading University is ranked 188 in the league table, headed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. The reality is that the competitiveness of UK universities has been affected by economic austerity, a cap on tuition fees for home students and a slowdown in research funding.
As such, competition for high fee-paying foreign students is brutal, with some universities resorting to outrageous claims about their rankings, quality and reach of their courses.
As an occasional lecturer and thesis supervisor of postgraduate and mature students at four universities and colleges in the UK over the years, it was evident that there are shortcomings on both sides of the educational balance sheet. Some courses are not up to scratch; supervisors oft know very little about the topic they are supervising; and, some students are not fit for purpose, especially in English language proficiency.
Several British universities have resorted to “exporting” their campuses by setting up satellites, which offer the same undergraduate courses as the mother ship, but in reality are feeders for students to do postgraduate studies in the UK.
Reading University’s claim is revealing. While it should not raise alarm bells, the Malaysian higher education authorities need to review how foreign universities in the country, and for that matter local ones, are marketing themselves to students.
ASA has been urged to do so in Britain given that several other universities in Southampton, Liverpool, Belfast, et al, have been using the same claim on their websites and marketing literature.
The ranking issue is important for several reasons. Malaysia is a preferred choice for higher education satellite campuses in Asia for British and US universities. Nottingham, Newcastle and Southampton universities have thriving campuses, mostly in EduCity, Iskandar Malaysia.
Last year, Reading University established a “state-of-the-art” foothold in EduCity aiming to attract 5,000 students by 2021.
According to Professor Tony Downes, provost and chief executive officer at University of Reading Malaysia, the university turned down China and India as a location in preference to Iskandar.
While the campuses share the risk of establishment and allied architecture with their parent, they are also recruitment rivals of Malaysian universities. Putrajaya has been encouraging students to do their undergraduate degrees in Malaysia instead of abroad. The impact of the 2008 global financial crisis and the volatility of the ringgit against the pound sterling and US dollar, have forced government-sponsored and private students to rethink going abroad.
As such, the satellite campuses of Nottingham, Reading and the other universities, which offer the same curriculum as in the UK, may be a godsend for Malaysian students who prefer to have a qualification from a recognised British or US university.
Reading University is also keen to “internationalise” the university by offering to institute a two-way traffic in the exchange and transfer of experts. Reading University’s International Capital Market Association Centre also has a tie-up with the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance, Bank Negara Malaysia’s global university for Islamic finance.
The above developments, together with the Higher Education Blueprint, could help Putrajaya achieve its long-term ambition for Malaysia to become a global education hub, transforming from a net exporter to a net importer of students.
University rankings are a growing business using competing criteria. They need to be regulated because these rankings are used as evidence of international status.
One university in London recently tweeted that it was one of the top three universities in the world, according to some ranking, which is as outrageous as it is inaccurate. The aim is to lure students from emerging countries who dream of studying at a good university abroad. High fees are no dampener for those fortunate enough to privately afford fees and living expenses or those on government scholarships.
According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, there were 17,405 Malaysians studying at UK universities in 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available. This compared with 91,215 students from mainland China and 17,405 from the US, which means foreign students studying in the UK is a mega-business.
It was former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who introduced higher university fees for foreign students in the early 1980s, and further inflated in the 1990s by fomer prime minister Tony Blair, who extended the privilege to home and foreign students. Their ideological obsession to transform education into a market from a service has had a material impact on tertiary education in the UK.
I remember the spat between former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed and the Iron Lady. Malaysia spoke for the emerging world when it strongly objected to the sharp increase in UK university fees. Dr Mahathir in riposte introduced his controversial “Look East” policy in December 1981, of which the aim was a shift in relations from the West, in particular Britain, to the new rising Asia, specifically, Japan. In education terms, it meant a boycott of undergraduate courses at British universities.
Today, the average fee for a humanities degree for home students has risen to £9,000 (RM49,000) per year and for foreign students up to £12,000, excluding digs, transport and food. For science degrees, it is even higher. There is no cap on fees for foreign students. For postgraduate courses, for instance, for a one-year master’s degree the fees are even higher — £18,000 for a home student.
As a father of three, all of whom are recent university graduates, with my youngest finishing her Master in Science at Edinburgh University next month, I can empathise with parents the world over about the financial stresses of educating your offspring in today’s market.
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org