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Letter from London

Importance of being foreign

J. Thomas
The announcement by Oxford University that it is planning to cut the number of UK and EU (European Union) undergraduates from 10,400 to 8,500 to expand its non-EU overseas under-graduate intake from 825 to around 1,400 per year, has prompted screaming headlines in Britain’s notorious tabloid press. ‘Oxford axes Britons: cash-strapped colleges will hand more places to foreigners’, screamed The Daily Mail in a headline guaranteed to rivet eyeballs, especially in an election year.

Such headlines have made vice-chancellors from other universities wary about revealing their plans, although almost all are likely to follow suit. Although the advantages of admitting foreign students in British universities are well known, it does, of course, boil down to money. Despite the introduction of top-up fees next year, home grown and EU students will still be taught at below cost price. It is the new non-EU students paying high fees upfront who subsidise the whole system, and the challenge for all universities is to get the balance between domestic and full-fee paying foreign students right.

Comments Prof. Steven Schwartz vice-chancellor of Brunel University: "One of the great advantages of going to university is getting a wide range of experience. We don’t just learn from books and professors, we learn empathy and understanding from the people we meet." Acknowledging the increasingly important role of foreign students in British higher education, he insists a larger intake of foreign students is a positive development. "A lot of the courses for which we have in the past struggled to find British students, like maths and engineering, are very popular with overseas students, so they are ensuring that we are able to maintain a diverse range of subjects," adds Schwartz.

Since 1997 the number of overseas students studying in the UK has soared. Most university staff agree that they bring different views and experiences to student life which enhances everyone’s learning. Others complain that academic standards are compromised as admission authorities accept students with less than the highest qualifications and English language inadequacies, to balance the budget.

Recently the intensity of the scramble to attract foreign students, who often pay four times more than their UK counterparts for the same study programmes, was highlighted by a Higher Funding Education Council report which predicts a 20 percent increase in overseas student numbers in the next three years, compared with a 4 percent increase in domestic and EU-based undergraduates. Universities have budgeted a 44 percent rise in aggregate income from overseas fees from £1.125 million in 2003-04 to £1,621 million in 2007-08.

However the danger of universities relying so heavily on overseas students is that they become vulnerable to unpredictable political and economic changes. A recent announcement from the home office that the cost of a visa will increase from £155 to £400 could well put off some students, and a further rise in the value of the pound could make the UK prohibitively expensive. Besides, there is growing competition from European universities, many of whom are now offering English-medium courses, and institutions in the US, all of whom are chasing students from a worldwide market.

United Kingdom

Serious intent about Education For All

The UK government is hoping its dramatic announcement of £1.4 billion (Rs.11,400 crore) of new aid over the next three years for girls’ education in poor countries will galvanise support for the worldwide drive to get every child into school. Campaign groups were caught off guard by the size of the commitment but warmly welcomed it. Save the Children said the UK was the first of the G8 group of wealthy nations to pay its ‘share’ towards the goal of achieving Education For All by 2015.

However, the Global Campaign for Education warns that a concerted aid effort from all wealthy countries is needed to reach the goal. An estimated 104 million children — 58 million of them girls — are currently out of school in poor countries. Unesco has calculated it will require £3 billion (Rs.24,600 crore) a year for the next 10 years to close the gap. An interim goal set by the international community in Dakar, Senegal in 2000 to get as many girls as boys into school by 2005 is likely to be missed.

Girl child in Africa: special focus
But the UK government which has pledged to put Africa at the top of the agenda during its presidency of the G8 this year, hopes its announcement will "inspire" other countries to contribute. "We are scaling up on education to set an example to the international community on girls education and education in general," so that the goals set in 2000 could be reached "albeit not this year," says junior development minister Gareth Thomas.

With donor countries reluctant to pledge funds, more than 75 countries have already missed the 2005 goal, one third of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Anne Jellema of the Global Campaign for Education welcomes the £1.4 billion pledge but says many countries needing help are ones which the Department for International Development does not currently support. She says achieving education for all requires "bold and co-ordinated action to remove school fees, improve infrastructure, train teachers. This needs a major investment by donor countries."

Comments Bob Doe, editor of Times Education Supplement, which has campaigned for Education for All for five years: "It is tremendous that the government is now taking the lead on this issue. I hope the commitment will be long-term and that they will push hard for other international leaders to match Britain’s efforts." According to Doe, the UK is in a unique position to influence the global drive for education as it holds the presidency of G8 and from July the presidency of the EU and it is also co-chairman of the global fast track initiative.

United States

Multiplicity of study choices debate

The core curriculum of US universities has been described "hollow" and has become an ideological lightning rod on campus. In a market-led system, faculty and students want courses that include non-Western literature and non-traditional material. Conservatives argue that graduates are not obliged to learn basic subjects.

US undergraduates elect to take courses across the full range of disciplines offered by the school of their choice. They select majors in their specific interest, guided by a core curriculum set by individual schools. A typical core curriculum requires students to take one to three courses in each of five or six disciplines. With no federal ministry or central authority exercising national control, institutions operate with autonomy, with programmes varying in quality and content.

According to a report by a monitoring organisation, the American Council of Trustee and Alumni (ACTA), the result is that students can graduate without studying maths, science, literature, economics, American history or government. The ACTA report evaluated 50 colleges and universities, including some of the nation’s best. Half failed their core requirements. None required a course in economics. Only 12 percent required a general course in literature and 14 percent a course in US government or history.

"Colleges have abdicated responsibility to direct students to the most important subjects," says Barry Latzer, professor of government at the City University of New York and principal author of the study. "Today’s college student is free to enroll in the most fashionable or convenient classes." Courses cited in the report include ‘Ghosts, demons and monsters’, ‘Introduction to companion animals’ and ‘literature of Tibet’. "Whatever the merits of these courses," says Latzer, "they should not be a student’s first, much less his only, course in literature."

Universities — most notably Harvard, whose faculty of arts and sciences agreed last year to leave things as they are — seem to be sticking by their distribution requirements. Harvard aims at a general undergraduate education across the curriculum from literature and the arts to social and physical sciences.


Gathering storm in Institut Pasteur

The head of France’s prestigious Institut Pasteur has put his job on the line amid growing protests from scientists employed at the medical research centre. A vote of confidence in Phillippe Kourilsky by the institute’s general assembly will either confirm him as director-general or kick-start the process to appoint his successor. The institute is a state-supported private medical research foundation founded in 1887 by Louis Pasteur. Its workforce numbers 2,500 and in 2004 it had a budget of € 186 million (Rs.949 crore).

Institut Pasteur: controversial reforms
Causes of the crisis include budget deficits; plans to relocate some units to a new site outside Paris; liberalisation reforms introduced too quickly; and alleged management bullying tactics.

Kourilsky, who started working for the institute in 1972 as a professor of the College de France, became director-general in 2000. He started a modernisation programme, which initially met with approval. It updated technological facilities, encouraged young research teams and reorganised departments. But other reforms were more controversial such as merit considerations superseding those of length of service and changes in evaluation processes. Relations soured between management and a growing number of researchers.

A new conflict arose last summer when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer donated a site in Fresnes, a few kilometers outside Paris, to the institute. For the management, this was an opportunity to move some functions out of its historic but cramped campus in Paris. According to opponents, it was an opportunity for managers to banish dissidents and refocus activities on applied research to service the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. Sir John Skenel, director of Britain’s National Institute of Medical Research, is acting as mediator, and is due to present a report into the implications of a relocation soon.

Meanwhile, matters have continued to deteriorate. In June, the Assemble des Cent — the institute’s general assembly — refused for the first time to approve the governing council’s annual administrative and financial report, leading protestors to demand the resignation of chair Michel Bon, a former head of France telecom. In December, hundreds of protestors demonstrated during a council meeting. The council agreed to convene the Assemblee des Cent as soon as possible to decide the future of Kourilsky.

Sri Lanka

Days after Boxing Day disaster

The rubble has been cleared from the school yard at Sujatha College in Galle on Sri Lanka’s wrecked southern coast. New exercise books, registers and uniforms are being donated and a full timetable recommenced in early February. But the emotional impact of the loss of more than 250 of the school’s 1,200 pupils may take much longer to overcome.

For the last month schools across South-east Asia affected by the tsunami have been preparing for the return of thousands of young children. But aid agencies warn that it could be months before the true scale of children’s emotional needs are known. "We have to be seen to be strong in front of students, but most of the teachers here have lost at least one student — in my class two of my best students were killed," says Manel Perera, who has taught at the school for four years. "It is very hard for some of us to deal with without help."

In parts of Sri Lanka worst hit by the Boxing Day disaster, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) is training two teachers in every school to identify pupils most in need of trauma counselling. Cindy Dubble, who helped train child counsellors in the wake of civil war in Uganda and Sierra Leone, says pupils could be showing the emotional effects — including becoming withdrawn — more than a year after the disaster. This could place a huge strain on teachers already struggling to cope with the death of colleagues, pupils and the large-scale destruction of school buildings. "With a lot of children it is still much too early to deal with the trauma, it is only when they start to feel safe that they will begin to open up and teachers will often be the first ones they will turn to," says Dubble.

In Galle, Unicef is training 100 medical graduates to act as interim counsellors to visit displacement camps and schools, identifying children traumatised by the disaster. The graduates are all volunteers working with Unicef for three months before taking internship at medical centres and hospitals around Sri Lanka — a move replicated across the country.

The Sri Lankan government estimates 77,161 children in 163 schools were affected in some way by the disaster.


About-face on liberal curriculum

Japan is to abandon its experiment with child-centred education, education minister Nariaki Nakayama has announced. He also plans a return to longer class hours and the promotion of patriotism. The country’s ruling coalition says it will overhaul Japan’s education laws this year in an attempt to reverse what it sees as policy failures of the past 20 years.

But analysts say the about-face is a sign of panic only three years after the government introduced a liberal curriculum. It had cut the school week from six days to five, introduced ‘softer’ subjects such as general studies into the curriculum and reduced students’ workload by 30 percent.

Japanese girl students
At the root of the change appears to be the latest batch of international educational comparison scores, which caused uproar in Japan. Late last year, Japan learned that its 15-year-olds had fallen in international rankings. In the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, Japan slipped from eighth to 12th place in reading and from first to fourth in maths, among countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This is proof, say ruling Liberal Democratic party ministers and half of the nation’s national newspapers, that Japan’s fundamental education law needs drastic rewriting. However, Japan did come second in science and fourth in problem-solving. One aim of the liberal curriculum was to teach children to identify and solve problems by themselves rather than simply fill their heads with facts. Another was to reduce the pressure on students.

The Liberal Democrats will seek to revamp the education law by the end of this year. Nakayama is demanding that general studies be cut back in favour of ‘major’ subjects such as science, maths and Japanese language studies. The minister admitted to reporters that to find the increased class time he may have to reintroduce Japan’s six-day school week, which was phased out three years ago. He has also suggested that it is time to reintroduce common assessment tests, which were used in all schools in the 1950s and 1960s but were stopped because it was thought they encouraged too much competition.

Even more controversially, the ruling party also wishes to insert some kind of patriotism studies into the curriculum or at least demand that teachers instill a sense of "love for country" in their pupils. The focal point of the draft revision concerning patriotism will be the promotion of respect for traditional culture and love of one’s nation. Teachers’ unions strongly oppose any such clause.


Unique transnational research initiative

US scientists are coordinating a plan to create a research centre in the Arava Valley that sits half on Israeli territory and half on Jordanian territory. Mati Kochavi, an Israeli businessman who founded the project, says the aim is to build "bridges between people in the Middle East by demonstrating the benefits of peace in measurable, sustainable programmes involving economic development, innovative research and advanced educational opportunities."

The project has its origins in a plan hatched four years ago to bring together Israeli and Jordanian farmers in the Rift Valley to cooperate in agricultural ventures. Kochavi convinced the King of Jordan of the seriousness of the project through a ‘Good Neighbours Programme’ and built a recreation park and a medical clinic. Then he approached scientists at Cornell and Stanford universities and started to build a network of scientists from Israel and Jordan. Staff and students will enter the new centre using magnetic cards, without the need for passports or visas.

The Bridging the Rift Centre will be located 99 km from Eilat and Aqaba on 150 acres of Israeli and Jordanian land in what is being called a "free education zone". Israeli and Jordanian scientists along with US colleagues are collecting samples of water, plants, soil and microbes from Red sea mud in the first step towards building the centre. Comments biological science professor Marcus Feldman, director of the Morrison Institute at Stanford: "There are already 100 Israeli professors willing to participate, including presidents of universities."

Ron Elber, professor of computer sciences at Cornell is part of the group of computer scientists at the university who will be working on software to catalogue all the information on organisms from the desert in a highly sophisticated ‘Library of Life’. "We enthusiastically support the Bridging the Rift project for scientific cooperation between us and our Israeli colleagues. This project enriches and contributes to each and every one of us and more important gives the hope that new opportunities for progress and prosperity will be opened in our region," says a Jordanian scientist.


Counting the cost of Taliban rule

Kabul University remains under-funded three years after the fall of the Taliban, with academic standards below international norms and students attending lectures in sub-zero temperatures because of lack of heating. Ed Burke, a Kabul-based officer for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) says that support for higher education has been piecemeal, with donor funding focussing on the needs of the primary education sector. The university which was established in 1933, has 8,700 students and 450 staff in 14 faculties. This includes the medical faculty, which last June became a separate medical university.

There is also an urgent need for English language education. Unesco has been raising the issue of an English language centre in Afghanistan for two years, but so far not a single donor has taken up the proposal.

Piecemeal international support has come bilaterally, with individual universities establishing links with Kabul. Mohammad Seddiq Azim, a physics lecturer and deputy director of student affairs says that after the collapse of the Taliban, foreign aid helped fund some renovation — electrical and plumbing, classroom furniture and redecoration. But facilities remain rudimentary. "We have neither fans in summer nor heaters in winter," says a law student.

But Prof. Seddiq says the main problems are outdated teaching methods, obsolete textbooks and lack of high-quality staff. Journalism student Ahmad Munir Paam describes the teaching style: "They memorise parrot fashion and then they repeat it in front of classes."

Before the Soviet invasion, Kabul’s lecturers used to go to the US, Germany, France and other countries to get Masters degrees and Ph Ds. After the invasion, academics went on a formal programme to Russia but there are now few opportunities to do this. But Burke says the problem is that many professors — through no fault of their own — are not fluent in English. "There are a lot of bright young people but often they don’t speak English because the country has been in turmoil for 25 years. They don’t have enough English to pass entry tests into an English-speaking university," he says. "Most of the staff are educated in Russian."

Seddiq admits that some of the lecturers are below university level and that most professors are at first degree level. But the university is trying to send such professors abroad for higher education. Ten have gone to Japan in the past two years for Masters degrees.

The English problem means students and professors struggle to keep up with the most recent scholarship. Books have poured in from across the world in response to appeals from the university library. But since most of the books are in English and some professors speak only Russian, they cannot benefit.


Targeted subsidisation tremors

Shanghai’s Donghua University has barred students who own mobile phones or other ‘extravagant’ items, including MP3 players and computers from applying for a national tuition grant of 6,000 yuan (Rs.31,000) per year. Applicants found to own offending items will have to either stop using them or give up their grants. But the university has made a concession for students who are shortly to graduate and need mobiles for job hunting.

Upscale Chinese students: grants withdrawal threat
As grants are intended to support study, money "should be spent on study or daily necessities rather than any other extravagances", says Wang Kebin, director of Donghua’s student affairs department. The rule ensures that grants go to those who really need them, he says.

Donghua stands by its decision. So far, however only one student has been removed from the list of students eligible for grants for refusing to give up his mobile phone.

The policy is symptomatic of increasing concern over student finances in Shanghai. The national support loan, a government-backed bank loan for students has a limit of 6,000 yuan per student. Even those eligible for a university grant find it difficult to make ends meet as tuition fees and accommodation costs rise. "When the tuition (fee) was 5,000 yuan, the national support loan was a great help for poor students," says Yao Junjun of the Shanghai International Studies University loan office, "but I’m worried about whether it can still be as helpful now that the tuition cost has increased to 10,000 yuan."

Moreover the loan term is eight years, so that students have to repay the whole amount just four years after completing their studies. Despite the government’s backing of the national support loan, banks are increasingly wary of lending money to students who may well be unable to make their repayments.

The university has also begun to send students’ loan records to their future employers after graduating to encourage prompt repayment. Starting this semester, Donghua students who apply for a subsidised bank loan are required to sign a statement and take an oath promising to repay on time. Loan recipients must also complete up to 200 hours of voluntary work while at the university.

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