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Selling Britain by the pound: helping universities recruit overseas

Paul Greatrix takes a look at how UK HE is sold around the world - with surprising results!
This article is more than 2 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

As we stare down the throat of Brexit and the evidence about the impact on EU and international student recruitment at UK universities mounts, the UK HE sector is going to need all the help we can get to promote ourselves overseas.

And, as The Times recently reported, growing international student recruitment is likely to be just about the only way universities can address expected financial shortfalls.

We have to take some reassurance that the government wants to be helpful, as with the Britain is Great campaign.

and that the British Council is batting for us and that the promotional work they are doing will help reverse our loss of market share. Similarly, QS have handy promotional material to support UK universities.

Help or hindrance?

But there are other sites too dedicated to aiding international student recruitment to the UK. It’s possible though that they may not be quite as helpful as they intend.

Just two of these sites give a flavour of this kind of promotional material.

First, there is the general overview offered by the International Student site which gives a handy summary of our cultural development

The UK has a very diverse society and the image that all Brits are cricket-playing, cucumber-sandwich- eating people with stiff upper lips is not at all true. As described more fully in our “Why Study in the UK” pages, the UK has a very multicultural society and is very open to new religions and cultures.

Over the last 30 to 40 years the UK has changed greatly and has become much more cosmopolitan and multicultural. The UK is seen as a destination of great diversity with London being the hub for many internationals.

The union of Great Britain and Northern Island is the latest that has occurred over the last 300 years. Originally Scotland and England were two entirely separate countries with their own monarchs and political systems, and Wales fell under the control of England and was known as a principality.

Over the years, various acts of union have taken place that have brought England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland together, and Ireland was later to gain independence in 1922 leaving the current split we see today.

The British Empire was once a world force, with territory as far flung as India, Canada, South America and Africa. Although colonial days are far gone and there has been a steady decline in the British Empire and the UK’s influence around the world, the UK is still a major political and economic force, with membership in the G8 and an economy that is the fifth largest in the world and second largest in Europe. The UK’s colonial history also means that it has been subject to a multitude of international influences and influxes of people, helping to create the multi-cultural society that exists today.

And, to accompany that history lesson, there is plenty of detail on living in the UK, people and culture, including this very useful section on language and dialects:

The main language in the UK is, of course, English, which is spoken throughout the whole country. In Wales, some people still speak Welsh; however, since all Welsh people also speak English, you only need to speak English anywhere in the UK. For such a relatively small country, there are a lot of dialects in the UK, and some of them can be hard to understand, even for English people. UK dialects include:

  • Cockney probably the most famous and generally attributed to people from London
  • Brummy people from Birmingham
  • Mancunian people from Manchester
  • West Country people from Devon, Cornwall and Bristol area
  • Scouser people from the Liverpool area
  • Geordie people from Newcastler, Middlesborough and Sunderland
  • Scottish people from Scotland
  • Welsh people from Wales

A slightly different but equally distinctive take on British history and culture is provided by the Studying-in-UK website which claims to be very influential indeed.

So, what do they have to say by way of an introduction to the UK for prospective international students. Let’s have a look:

How much do you know about UK? Is it just the bad weather? Although it’s a country we may have heard a lot about, there are still many interesting things that make it unique other than its unpredictable weather.

Its population exceeds 63 million, with London, its capital, counting for over 8 million of them. Other big UK cities include Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bristol, Belfast, Leicester, etc. The official spoken language is English and their currency is the sterling pound. Its political definition is that of a parliamentary monarchy. The United Kingdom is one of the greatest countries in the world, playing a major and a central role in global politics and economy.

If you want some great food, like bangers and mash, hot buttered crumpets, and Cornish pasties, then the UK is a good place to visit as well. And who doesn’t love tea time? All in all, people enjoy the overall atmosphere of the country, which is why a lot of students decide to do either their undergraduate or their postgraduate studies in the UK.

The architectural display is unique too. Its most impressive architectural structures came in different shape and styles and represent different ages of the British architecture. You wouldn’t reject the joy of visiting one of the eight miracles in the world: the Stonehenge. Or you might like to visit any of its numerous old castles spread all over the country, like for example the tower of London. Or maybe you would like to have a walk under the hedges in Ireland.

Pretty much nails it there. Who doesn’t want hot buttered crumpets? Although I’m not sure about those Irish hedges. There’s plenty more helpful advice for applicants here too, including about the weather:

If you’ve seen movies that are set in the UK, you will note that it is often raining in those movies; you’d be surprised to know that that is quite accurate, especially if you live near the western border of England or in the Lake District! Rainfall can happen even during the coldest months of winter; snow is rare but it has been known to happen.

An unforgettable taste experience

And the culinary options:

A list of UK traditional foods

  • Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding
  • Fish and chips
  • Toad in the hole
  • Scones and clotted cream
  • Cumberland sausage
  • Shepherd’s pie
  • Lancashire hotpot, etc.

You’re just a decision far from having an unforgettable experience.

Then there is this description of the British and the things you need to know about them which, I have to say, is pretty accurate and actually rather generous.

The British are punctual. Being late is odd and, in some cases, considered to be rude. If you’re going to be late to something, contact those involved as soon as you know you will be late. Also, it is less rude to be late to a dinner party at someone’s home than it is to be late to a public meeting (such as dinner at a restaurant).

Never jump lines, known as “queues” in UK. In some countries jumping the queue may be acceptable, but in UK, people may not be very happy with you and will definitely let you know how unhappy they are about the situation. Standing patiently in the queue is a normal part of British culture.

In the UK, it’s acceptable to keep one arm’s length between yourself and those you are speaking with. Any closer is assumed to be aggressive and can be uncomfortable for those native to UK.

Please, thank you, and sorry are normal parts of everyday conversations and interactions. Some people are simply baffled by how polite British people are. As an international student, you may not be used to this, but you will probably get used to it quickly after your arrival!

When greeting a good friend or family member in UK, you do not simply shake their hand. Many times, especially if one of the people that are greeting or being greeted is female, you will frequently give and/or receive a small kiss on the cheek. If you are not a close friend or family member, then the physical touch is perceived as odd or uncomfortable (you may shake hands, but often a smile and a bow of the head is acceptable enough).

The British have a high amount of respect for older adults and the disabled. If you are on public transportation, you are expected to give up your seat if someone who is disabled or older comes onto the tram (or whatever vehicle you are in) and there is no other seat. If an older adult or someone who is disabled seems to be struggling with something, you are also expected to ask the person if they need your assistance.

British people rarely use superlatives and are not very animated when they speak. They value privacy over everything else, so be careful what you ask because you could be prying without meaning to.

British people often avoid extended eye contact. They find it uncomfortable and intimidating.

If you are invited to the home of a native British person, it is normal to bring along a gift, such as chocolate, wine, or flowers to say thank you.

If you go to a pub with your friends, it is common practice to buy a round of drinks for those who you came with.

The person who has invited you to dinner is typically the one who pays. Do not argue about whose responsibility it is, rather, invite them out to dinner at some point and pay for them to reciprocate.
These little cultural differences will be a regular part of adapting to life in UK, and so it’s important to learn them before you even arrive. You want to make sure that you don’t offend anyone as you’re getting used to life in UK.

I would suggest though that the level of respect for older people and the disabled is perhaps overstated.

Gimme shelter

OK, enough of history and culture, let’s have a look at the academic side of things. And what could be more relevant than the study history of a Rolling Stone:

Business-related courses top the list of the UK’s most popular degrees. The British Business schools enjoy an international profile thanks to their long and rich tradition in educating exceptional future business professionals.

According to the official statistics, as of 2016/17, 121,675 international students were attending a Business & Administrative course, being this way the largest group of foreign students in UK.

A lot of internationally recognized and respected figures, be it in business or not, have a UK business degree. The legendary rock artist Mick Jagger is one of the celebrities who holds a business degree in UK. He earned his degree at the famous London School of Economics.

There are some surprisingly detailed reports on different regions of the country which you can find here together with a very exciting interactive map. These include highly selective descriptions of particular institutions in those regions which are well worth a look.

But what about the realities of student life you may be asking, especially for those attracted to Oxford or Cambridge:

Student Life in Oxford and Cambridge

If you are at Oxford or Cambridge, did you know you are attending one of the oldest (and most well known) universities in all of the United Kingdom? Then maybe you’d also be interested to know that they also have one of the oldest activities known to the United Kingdom as well: Punting.

Punting is a form of boating. You use a flat-bottomed boat (known as a “punt”) that you propel using a large pole that you push along the bottom of the river you are traveling on. You can take tours on the Cherwell, Isis, and Cam Rivers using a punt. You can see some of the famous bridges, ride through the countryside, go for a picnic, or even race with a punt. You can have a lot of fun if you decide to learn how to punt, and many of the universities in this area will offer punts that you can rent.

Oxford and Cambridge are very historical towns. Even though there is a little evidence of nightlife, most of what you will find is quaint and quiet in nature. You can go see live theatre; there are lots of places to shop, and many pubs where you can enjoy a pint and some good food. In general, student life in Oxford and Cambridge is very peaceful and quiet, which makes it ideal for the intense studying that you will do at either of the major universities in this region.

It’s all about the football

Sport and music are of course key concerns for all students so what is there to say about these?

Sports are a very popular activity among Brits. Clearly, the Football (or Soccer as referred by Americans) is the British top favorite sport. This normally would be expected because the UK is where the modern Football has begun.

The second most favorite sports of Brits is Rugby. A long time ago this sport was associated with the elite, but later it became widespread. Today, there are two leagues of Rugby in UK.

Brits also like swimming, Cricket, Tennis, Boxing and so on.
Did you know that although most people wrongly think that Tennis table originates from Asian countries, the game was first invented in UK?

The music in UK has a long and rich history. British artists have firmly impacted the European and global history of music. In medieval times the British composers gave a major contribution to continental music movements. Some of the most known British composers in classical music include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, Hubert Parry, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.

At modern times the British music is one of the most developed and most influential in the world. Probably the most famous British music band ever, the Beatles, was founded in 1960 in Liverpool and is regarded by many to be the most influential music group that ever existed. Some of the best artists of today’s music industry are from the UK.

The UK is also where some of the most trendy music genres originated and today they have mastered them. Blues-rock, heavy metal, punk rock, hard rock, British folk-rock, folk punk, acid jazz, Britpop, grime, Dubstep and many more are some of the music genres that were first performed by UK musicians or were largely influenced by them.

Perhaps my favourite section is this one on common misconceptions about UK:

Warm beer

One of the weirdest on this list maybe. Probably you’ve heard it before. The truth is that a Briton won’t drink a beer way hotter than yours. British people are known as people who drink a lot and this story could have stemmed from this fact.

Britons drink too much tea

Well, that’s not too far from the truth. It is said that the UK is ranked third worldwide in tea consuming. But that doesn’t mean every British citizen drinks tea. Some statistics note that on average 165 million cups of teas are consumed in the UK.

Not all Britons love the Royal family

Although the majority of UK citizens share a positive opinion about the Queen there are many who don’t in reality. It’s just another misconception about the UK and its people.

Bizarre and charmingly naive as all this is I think we are going to need a bit more to deliver the kind of growth in international student numbers which many UK universities are banking on for survival.

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