By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter, Edinburgh
The UK must be a serious player in the global market for students if it is to prosper, says the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke.
Mr Clarke urged institutions to 'go global'
He told a British Council-organised UK International Education Conference in Edinburgh that this was worth £10.4bn a year to the economy.
The event, the first of its kind in the UK, is in response to increasing globalisation in the sector.
Increasingly, universities around the world are recruiting across national boundaries.
'Only way forward'
The British Council says there are a million overseas students in the UK and that the number of students ready to study in other countries is set to increase further.
It also expects to see more "transnational" institutions, such as universities and colleges, setting up campuses abroad or offering courses by distance learning.
Mr Clarke told delegates that "going global is not an option or just a marketing device - it is the only way forward".
"It's not a case of whether we go global or do something else, but whether we do it well or poorly," he said.
In an increasingly mobile, communications-driven world, he said it was important for young people in the UK to be able to cope with rapid economic change.
"We want them to be masters of change and not victims of it," he told BBC News.
Neil Kinnock, chairman of the British Council, emphasised the need for international education efforts to tackle poverty in the developing world and to challenge ignorance and prejudice.
In an impassioned speech, he said education could provide "emancipation for minds and peoples" and that "poverty, ignorance and injustice are communicable diseases and that the antidote of education is vital".
But he also called for greater recognition for how overseas students benefited the UK and to challenge "latent xenophobia".
When two-fifths of postgraduate research students were from overseas, he asked how many other science departments would be closing if these overseas students were not coming to UK universities.
The British Council's Tom Walsh said this inaugural conference
reflected a "step change" in the importance of the international dimension
This was being driven by greater student mobility and the increased
marketing of courses across international boundaries, in which the UK would
be competing with many other countries.
This concept of "transnational" education, where courses were designed in
one country and delivered in another, was not only about the public sector
and traditional government-funded universities.
He said there was growing interest from the private sector, and among the
speakers would be a representative of a United States education chain which
had 150,000 students in 15 campuses in 12 different countries.
Another key factor for the UK was the global appetite for learning the
English language, which provided an opportunity for educational
But another speaker pointed to the potential risks of the "exporting" of
education services and how the recipients needed to be respected.
Kader Asmal, a former education minister in South Africa, said
international providers of education needed to be sensitive to local needs
and not to simply cherry-pick the most lucrative services, such as setting
up business schools.
He also argued that institutions setting up overseas used the "snob value"
of their reputations, but did not always maintain the same high standards.
And he warned that the growing economic importance of education could lead
to greater polarisation between the affluent and poor nations.
Education is the "electricity of economic development", he told the
conference. And while rich countries could invest in the skills needed for
the "knowledge economy", poorer countries risked being pushed back even