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Alex Usher, president, HESA, Canada

Alex Usher is president of a Canadian education consulting company and a well-known commentator, via his blog and Twitter, on issues around global higher education. We sat down with him to discuss his worldview and his take on the latest MAC report.


"Canada often behaves like we really get  international higher education, but you know, we’ve benefited enormously from the mistakes of others"

The PIE: Tell me about some of the broad range of your consulting at HESA. What do you consult on?

AU: It is probably broader than it should be, [laughs]: We do exercises on program evaluation, we do institutional strategy; we’ve worked for institutions, provincial governments; federal governments; we’ve worked for clients in every continent except Australia.

We look at access, student aid, affordability and institutional financing, both from a government perspective and an institutional perspective.

The PIE: And how did you start working in the global education industry in the first place?

AU: I started in student politics … I was the head of one of the national student unions in Canada for a while then I went to work for what is now Universities Canada. I then started my own consulting firm 15 years ago.

The PIE: And you obviously have a good opportunity to look at the global context of education..

AU: Yup!

The PIE: Where do you think it is right now and what is its position on the growth curve?

AU: I think you have to remember that enrolment in higher education generally is starting to flatten out globally.  We have gone through a 10- or 15-year period where we have added millions of students to the global total … and that was driven largely by China, largely by India, and in both cases, it was driven partly by an increase in the youth population, partly by an increase in yield.

So one of those two drivers is gone in both of those countries: the Indian youth population is no longer growing, in China, it is shrinking, and those two countries are – off top of my head – well over one-third of the total [mobile student population].

“The reason people go abroad often is they want a prestige degree and I don’t think that is going away”

So if those two drivers are gone, the global numbers are not growing anymore. But I think what people miss often about the growth of international higher education is the question of what the alternative is.

The PIE: What do you mean?

AU: People say that China is a bubble because look at their system, it’s growing by leaps and bounds. But China is not a bubble and the reason they are still strong is, yes the number of spots in China is increasing, but the number of prestige spots is not.

C9 [university alliance] is not growing any bigger … although the system grew. The Chinese government was very clear to its top institutions that they are not supposed to grow. In fact on the undergraduate side, they are shrinking, becoming increasingly graduate-focused.

The reason people go abroad often is they want a prestige degree and I don’t think that is going away. Prestige to some extent is a fixed quality and the West has more of it than the developing world does.

In absolute terms, I think the numbers are still going to keep growing into Western countries and to the extent that some of those Western countries don’t seem to want international students anymore – the UK, or the government of the United States – they are going to have to get diverted to places like Australia and Canada or Germany and those countries are going to do very very well.

The PIE: Do you think there are countries, outside of the ones you just mentioned, who will do well?

AU: I think in order to do well you have to have a couple of things: you have to have some spare capacity or at least the capacity to grow and an ability to teach in English.

For example, the Dutch have some declining demographics and they have declining government funding. But there is a lot of pushback in the universities about providing degrees in English.

“I think Russia does have a really good value proposition in engineering & science”

You could imagine countries like Romania going somewhere, or the Czech Republic. I think Russia does have a really good value proposition in engineering & science because the legacy of their science programs for several decades in the Soviet period is still very strong in some countries.

Especially with the fall of the rouble, to the extent that they can teach in English, [they can offer] a very competitive package.

The PIE: And what do you think about the political overtones of Russia at the moment?

AU: Ah … I think they matter a lot more here than they would in Latin America or they would in China and those are the markets they are going after.

They are not picking up students from London anytime soon but they could easily pick up students from Africa or the Middle East or Latin America, I don’t think that is a problem at all frankly.

The PIE: Do you look much at Africa as a continent in terms of education?

AU: I’ve worked a lot in East Africa. In Africa, there are some good emerging institutions out there like the Nelson Mandela Africa Institution of Science & Technology in Tanzania and others. But these systems are too under-developed.

I know one or two countries, like Botswana, aiming to have an education zone; you’ve got to have decent airport facilities, decent internet, decent electricity. There are a lot of countries in Africa that just don’t have steady electricity supply yet.

South Africa is the place that has a lot going for it but again it’s so beset by its own difficulties.

The PIE: Do you have a viewpoint on Asia becoming a stronger hub in its own right, beyond China, obviously.

AU: Yes: the conditions are there in both Japan and Korea to put on an international push if they want to. Those are places which both have huge capacity issues; big drops, big dip in demographics, especially in Korea.

So they’ve built up these universities and now they are struggling for students, so the question is how do you how do you attract people to Korea?

Mostly they’ve been taking from China and from Mongolia…they may plump for the Chinese market which is fine because that is a really big market so they could do quite well.

“To my mind, Malaysia is the interesting country for the next 12-to-18 months”

Further afield, Malaysia has been setting out its stall there for a long time. A lot of their international students have been going to lower quality institutions; this is not like what you see in the UK where the big numbers students tend to go to Russell Group schools.

A new government could change things a lot. I really do think that there’s room for some really big changes in policy in Malaysia: to my mind it’s the interesting country for the next 12-to-18 months.

The PIE: I have to ask, what do you think of the MAC report out this week?

AU: So I haven’t read the MAC report but I saw the headlines that Theresa May is not changing her mind and that’s all we need to hear.

I would say Theresa May’s policy is probably worth about half a billion dollars a year to Canadian institutions. We have been the beneficiaries over the last six or seven years of an enormous number of students who are just not allowed to come to the UK…

The PIE: It is not that they are not allowed, it’s that the policy settings…

AU: But also the fact is they’re part of long-term targets, right, which means they’re not staying.

The PIE: Well that’s what the MAC report unpicks.. that there is no student cap although there is an [overall migration] target. It’s not that the fact that people are not allowed to come here; in terms of policy settings it’s just that they can’t [access the jobs market in the same way]

AU: So let’s put it this way – the policy settings discourage many of them from coming. So the UK has not been able to benefit from this growing market for the last six or seven years.

The thing you have to understand about Canada is Canada often behaves like we really get international higher education, but you know, we’ve benefited enormously from the mistakes of others.

So the Americans when they started turning people away after 9/11, when they elected Trump, they diverted students to Canada. When you had those perceived racist attacks on Indian students in Australia, we got flooded with new students.

“We’ve just gotten really good without getting good at the fundamentals”

In Canada, we have a saying, there is the kid who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. I don’t know if there is a British equivalent to that but that is what Canada is: we’ve just gotten really good without getting good at the fundamentals.

The PIE: Right!

AU: So we don’t have a lot of agents abroad, we don’t have campuses abroad, we don’t have any of that stuff. But what we do have, reliably apparently, are a lot of other governments who make mistakes and we’re all very glad that it happens because it’s keeping our universities afloat.

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