Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Head for the Highlands

Scotland’s distinctive higher education system is increasingly attracting international students from around the world

Matt Salusbury writes

This article first appeared in the English Language teaching industry trade paper English Language Gazette, May 2008

Scotland’s education system is widely regarded as the best in the UK. It has traditionally had proportionally more university places than the rest of Britain. Some of its universities are much older institutions than even Oxford or Cambridge, with one group of Scottish universities known collectively as ‘ancient universities’.

Figures supplied by Scottish Universities for students in higher education in Scotland put the total number of students (both UK and international) at 223,000. Of these, 12,500 were overseas students from other EU countries and 24,000 were from outside the EU. Some overseas students may find their school-leaving qualifications actually put them at an advantage when applying for Scottish universities compared to other UK entrants. This is because Scotland has a different system, with ‘Highers’ school leaving exams leading to a four-year degree in a Scottish university, compared to A-levels leading to a three-year degree in the rest of the UK. Susannah Lane, a researcher with the Scottish Universities association says the ‘perception of the four-year degree as the gold standard in education serves as a pull factor. Another big draw is Scotland’s ‘research base which is known internationally to be world class’. A comfortable majority of international students are in Scotland on postgraduate courses, and half of these are on research-based rather than taught ones.

Kelly Ferguson of Education UK Scotland suggests a ‘vast array of reasons’ why students chose Scotland, including ‘friends or family connections… safety and security on campus (and) culture - traditional and modern.’ She also cites the range of scholarships available for study there.

The most popular subjects for overseas students are business, which just beats engineering, then computing, biological sciences and ‘medicine-related.’ The ‘Watt’ in Heriott-Watt University commemorates Scottish engineer James Watt, and Napier University is named after a mathematician. Both of these universities pull in a lot of international students in these subjects, with Heriott-Watt recruiting many overseas architecture and business students too. Glasgow University seems to specialise in attracting overseas biologists. Strathclyde University had over 700 international students on its business courses in 2007.

But two less well-known universities seem to have carved out niche markets for foreign students. The Paisley-based University of the West of Scotland has the most business students from outside the EU, while Robert Gordon University has the most non-EU students in engineering, architecture and computer sciences. Dundee University seems to be doing rather well in recruiting non-EU students taking a variety of subjects.

The number of overseas students on further education (FE) vocational courses is surprisingly low. Of the 50,000 students who do FE courses in Scotland in 2005, only 310 are from other EU countries, and there are only 1,045 non-EU FE students. Non-degree FE courses are a growth market all over the English-speaking world, so this number can be expected to rise, especially given Scotland’s long-held reputation for excellence in technical subjects.

In 2001, there were students from over 100 countries studying in Scotland. The top ten countries of origin for sending students to Scotland as of 2006 were, in numerical order, China with just over 5,000, the US, India with nearly 4,000, Malaysia with over 3,000, Hong Kong with almost that number, closely followed by Ireland, then Canada with 2,000, Germany with 1,980, Greece with 1830. France is tenth, with1,500 students at Scottish universities.

The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has its own 2005–2006 figures for students from outside the EU studying in Scotland, and these list Norway, Nigeria, Taiwan and Japan as the biggest non-EU countries of origin after Canada.
There has been a steady rise in the total number of international students in Scottish universities. HESA figures list India and Nigeria as showing the biggest growth.
Non-EU international student numbers are rising much faster than for students from the rest of EU outside the UK. ‘Other EU’ student numbers have seen only a slight rise overall since the 1990s. While funding arrangements differ slightly in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK, the bigger increase in non-EU admissions could be partly down to the fact that universities can charge these students a lot more, so they become a marketing priority.

And let’s not forget higher education distance learning courses based in Scotland. Scottish Executive figures for 2006 put the total number of distance learning students based overseas at 18,000, and they outnumber the 14,400 who are based in the UK. Most of these distance learning students are postgraduate, with less than a thousand overseas students doing undergraduate first degrees by distance learning.

Matt Salusbury, news and features editor, English Language Gazette
with additional reporting by Michael Bowden
Copyright: English Language Gazette

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