The emergence of India and China represents an economic opportunity - not a threat, Tony Blair said today as he launched a drive to bring an extra 100,000 overseas students to the UK over the next five years.
The prime minister announced the second phase of an initiative to promote British higher education following the success of his 1999 programme which set a target of 75,000 additional overseas students; 50,000 of them in universities and 25,000 in further education colleges. That target was comfortably exceeded with 93,000 more in higher education.
Today Mr Blair said British universities must build partnerships overseas and not just recruit students. These partnerships will extend to research as well as teaching.
In particular, the prime minister has backed research links with India to promote commercial spin-offs from science and technology. These would be "very significant", he told a reception for international students and sponsors at Downing Street.
A joint science and innovation council has been set up as part of the £7.5m UK-India education research initiative. It has the personal backing of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and is expected to be chaired in Britain by the chief scientist Sir David King.
Mr Blair said the initiative was not just about getting students to choose UK universities and colleges. "It's about building sustainable partnerships between our universities and colleges and those of other countries.
"We want to see many more shared research projects, shared courses and joint degrees; we want to see more exchanges of students and academic staff; we want UK education to become genuinely international," he said.
The India high commissioner, Kamalesh Sharma, said: "If India and Britain were join their cerebral talents we would find the value added beyond recognition. Let's convert talent and entrepreneurship to become part of the huge knowledge economy of the world."
The UK has about 300,000 international students, not counting those from the European Union, who bring in an estimated £5bn in fees and other spending.
Mr Blair admitted that a 100,000 increase was an ambitious target in view of the increased competition, not only from the US and Australia but from China and India, which are starting to attract overseas students themselves.
The government is also trying to sort out problems with student visas - blamed by universities for slowing the rise in overseas student numbers - and tightening up on the number of bogus colleges and language schools that damage the reputation of UK education.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative higher education spokesman, said: "Of course the prime minister is right to highlight the massive cash injections our universities currently receive from international students. It is a huge British success story - and entirely thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who changed the rules on international students' fees!
"But there must be a risk that we will become addicted to these fees - and then discover that the market is dwindling. I have just been to China, and seen for myself how fierce the market is becoming in international students. Rather than setting more targets and quotas, we must make sure that UK universities continue to offer the best possible education for the world's brightest students," added Mr Johnson. (Source: EducationGuardian.co.uk, by Donald MacLeod)