Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
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Vince Cable speech - International skills - British Council

Vince Cable speech - International skills - British Council

News Release issued by the COI News Distribution Service on 08 December 2011


I want to talk today about international skills in a number of different senses. We have now to think of skills in a much broader way than in the past. First, globalisation isn’t just about financial flows of trade in goods, it is also about people and knowledge. And second, we are way past the point where the Western world was the repository of knowledge and skills and the rest of the world earned its living from commodities and cheap labour.

If we think purely in vocational terms, a national strategy in China has recently identified the need to establish a network of 1,200 training centres by 2020, and to train 3.5 million more technicians. In India – where they estimate that, by 2022, 90 per cent of new jobs will require qualified staff – the target is to add 500 million skilled workers to the Indian labour force.

These are massive numbers – difficult to conceive. WorldSkills 2011 – held here in London – provides a more tangible example. There were more than 50 countries represented at the competition: from Estonia to Malaysia, Colombia to Australia, Ireland to Iran. It proved that nations of all kinds are engaged in boosting the skills of their people – to increase commercial success and promote economic competitiveness as well as knowledge and study for its own sake. By that I mean the self-confidence and self-worth that individuals derive from becoming competent in almost any kind of new pursuit – a reason why the Government has protected the budget for informal adult learning.

One consequence of this global demand is that China, India and the like represent a vast market in which our further education colleges should compete. Plenty of colleges already have the experience of creating bespoke training alongside employers. They're well versed in new technologies and distance learning. Accordingly, the Government is stepping up its efforts to support further education as an export, as well as higher education.

The globalisation of HE is relatively more advanced, of course, and it's one in which UK universities have a played a prominent part – whether judged on the popularity of this country among both foreign students and academics, the high proportion of UK research which involves international collaboration, or the efforts of UK institutions to create satellite campuses around the world. Last year, indeed, there were more than 400,000 students living in their home countries who were enrolled on UK HE programmes – more than the number studying in the UK. And where our so-called trans-national education exports were worth around £210 million in 2009/10, that could grow to an estimated £850 million by 2025.

The international focus of our universities is important, and the Government is supporting it by forging links with the HE systems of countries like Indonesia and Brazil, as well as China and India. It's an agenda in which the British Council has a pivotal role – as I've seen for myself on a number of overseas visits including each of those four countries. Besides its specific help in, say, establishing hundreds of partnerships between UK universities and businesses and their Indian counterparts, I gratefully acknowledge the Council's contribution to attracting international students to the UK and helping people to learn English.

But I return to my point about expanding the influence of our skills sector. The UK India Education and Research Initiative, for instance, includes an agreement to help the Indian government develop its skills infrastructure. And we are working with our Chinese colleagues to help them develop an apprenticeships programme in China. John Hayes, the Skills Minister, returned from China today having led a UK delegation to discuss this very subject.

From a more domestic perspective, meanwhile, we're working to ensure that FE colleges offering quality provision can – just like universities – attract and benefit from international students.

This is critical. The HE sector generates annual exports worth £7.9 billion; FE contributes an additional £1.1 billion. It is vital – notwithstanding the need to prevent any abuse of our immigration system – to continue attracting overseas students to the UK. This is a market in which we excel, thanks to the global standing of our colleges and universities. And it's a market that's growing. Some years back, the British Council estimated that the number of HE students physically studying outside their country of citizenship could rise to 5.8 million by 2020.

The outside world should know that our academic institutions and our Government welcome genuine international students, and are planning for long term growth. There is no visa limit on the number of overseas students who are eligible to study here. The recent immigration reforms are designed to cut out the bogus applicants and poor quality colleges which have damaged the reputation of the sector; they are certainly not designed to undermine legitimate and quality colleges.

Of course, international students are not generally thought of by the public as immigrants, as a recent report from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University illustrates. During their studies, international students enhance the campus experience of their UK-born colleagues. After graduation and upon returning home, the great majority remain keen supporters of this country, maintaining the kinds of strong links that are good for business, as well as fruitful cultural and political interaction.

At the same time, we have worked with the Home Office so that reforms of the visa system take into account the needs of the research community. Under Tier 1, scientists of exceptional talent and achievement will be able to come to the UK without a job offer – their merits assessed not by government officials, but by the learned societies. And under Tier 5, the Government has enabled universities to be allowed to expand the terms of their Government Authorised Exchange Schemes.

As part of the Growth Review, we also announced our intention to maximise education export opportunities in the priority markets of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey and the Gulf. The recent agreement with Brazil to accept 10,000 students to study STEM subjects in the UK is a signal of intent – and I congratulate Universities UK for negotiating this deal on behalf of our HE sector.

There's another way, though, in which the UK should be thinking carefully about international skills. In this case, the task is making sure that UK companies have people with the linguistic ability, overseas experience and cultural awareness necessary to do business abroad, to attract inward investment, to export goods and services. That, in fact, is the blueprint for sustainable economic growth.

But how well equipped are we to do this in a world where – for all the assumptions about English remaining its lingua franca – just six per cent of the global population speak English as a first language? Indeed, while 51 per cent of internet use was conducted in English in 2001 – against just five per cent in Chinese – the figures for 2009 were 29 per cent in English and 20 per cent in Chinese.

The simple answer is that this is nowhere near good enough. The report from the British Council and Think Global is instructive. UK business leaders have said that, unless young people are encouraged to broaden their horizons, the UK risks falling behind. These employers deem knowledge and awareness of the wider world more important when recruiting than degree subject and classification. In fact, businesses for whom trade with people from other cultures is all important are finding it hard to recruit staff – confirming an earlier survey by the CBI.

The underlying causes aren't hard to fathom. Universities UK recently estimated the number of UK students studying abroad at 33,000. While more than in the past, this is low by international standards. Between 1975 and 2006, the mobility of our students increased 33 per cent. For the US, it was 40 percent; for France, 492 per cent. And that 33,000 is dwarfed by the more than 400,000 foreign students studying full-time at the UK's own universities.

It's here that further research conducted on behalf of the British Council is particularly useful, because it establishes some reasons why UK undergraduates are not spreading their wings to the same extent as young people from other countries. The basic picture chimes with previous evidence on barriers around language and cost.

But there are also some surprising insights.Science students appear to be less outward-looking than those studying arts subjects – perhaps because a greater number of compulsory modules can make going abroad more complicated. Of broader concern is the finding that even those who gain international experience often fail to appreciate how this actually enhances their employability. And yet a HEFCE study has concluded that 75 per cent of Erasmus students obtain a first or a 2.i compared to 60 per cent of students who do not study abroad – and that Erasmus students are more likely to be in employment six months after graduating, earning more than their peers. For some, the fact that six per cent of participants on the Language Assistants programme met their life partner while overseas could be an even stronger selling point; it's certainly something that I can relate to having happily married my late wife in East Africa while working overseas.

Clearly, we have work to do communicating more effectively the benefits of going abroad – not only for language students and not only through formal programmes. Spending a short, constructive, period abroad, perhaps during the summer break, can have a significant effect on people. We need to remember, too, that our domestic student population is diverse. Just two fifths of applicants to full-time undergraduate courses are 18 – most are adults. So we require some creative ideas to open up opportunities for those with parental or caring responsibilities, and for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

Now, I'm not suggesting that nothing of this kind isn't already in place. Besides managing the Erasmus programme and the Language Assistants programme for the UK, the British Council – for example – is part of the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience. It helps undergraduates studying science, engineering and applied arts to gain practical training in more than 85 countries.

At the same time, mobility is a key strand of the UK India Education and Research Initiative. Under its auspices, UK students visit India for three weeks to learn about the country. Last year, 1,300 students applied for 200 places. My department is now committing funds for a similar scheme in China – this one for more than 400 UK students. And we are working with employers such as Huawei to enable UK students to undertake work placements, also in China.

Nevertheless, further action is required. We're determined, for example to widen participation in Erasmus after a HEFCE report last year concluded that credit-mobile students are "disproportionately white, female, middle-class and academic high-achievers". To that end, BIS has commissioned a working group on student mobility, in which the British Council is involved. And its conclusions will be greatly helped by the British Council's "Next Generation" report – which shows what perceptions among young people need addressing, suggests ways of raising awareness and highlights the importance of increasing overseas experience among students at post-1992 universities. It's telling that Hertfordshire University has managed to increase its Erasmus participation by two thirds simply through active promotion. I recently met a group of academics and employers in the House of Commons making this case strongly, and I want to pursue it.

I really hope that this event can generate some good ideas to get the future UK workforce more switched on to the realities of globalisation – so that they think about what's happening to our world as much in terms of their careers as they do as consumers. Although digital technologies certainly make the planet feel smaller and more interconnected, there's still no substitute for seeing things with our own eyes. The imperatives here are social as well as economic, moral as well as personal.

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