Follow the science – it is international art and design students who are of most value to the UK

Birmingham City University vice chancellor David Mba highlights the net benefit to the UK of international art and design students

David Mba is vice chancellor at Birmingham City University

Every year, thousands of international Art and Design students arrive at UK universities – but their ability to fully contribute to our culture, society and economy is increasingly imperilled.

Britain is traditionally welcoming to international students. Since 2010, numbers have grown annually, in line with growing numbers of home students. In 2021-2022, roughly 680,000 were studying here.

When international students finish their courses, they can stay for two years, which gives them ample time to contribute to both society and the economy. A minority stay for good, provided they meet the sufficient salary threshold to acquire a visa. If the UK, then, is generous and welcoming to international students, and if overall numbers are growing, why am I so concerned about where we are headed? Let me explain….

Last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak committed to clamping down on so-called “low value courses” – those deemed not to make a sufficient financial contribution to the graduate and the economy. There are two ways the UK government measures that contribution: a survey students take 15 months after graduation; and modelling based on lifetime predicted earnings.

These measures tend not to favour creative courses. Why? Well, let’s imagine a graduate artist. This individual, blessed with talent and a craft learned during their time at university, will need time to build up a portfolio of work before they can turn their practice into a decent living. In the meantime, they may take on part-time work in a job that simply pays the bills.

In such a scenario, the government’s modelling may deem their university course “low value”. Few, however, would doubt the enrichment artists provide to society. We might say the same for musicians, filmmakers and sculptors. But the clampdown on creative courses – and therefore on funding – is forcing many universities to close arts departments down.

Misaligned priorities

The second reason I am concerned is because of the government’s prioritisation of STEM subjects, such as science and engineering, over creative ones. In 2021, it announced a 50 per cent cut in subsidies to art and design subjects provided through the Office for Students and redirected funds to subjects of “strategic priority”. This is despite the fact the UK’s creative industries are bigger than aerospace, life sciences and the automotive sectors combined. From 2010 to 2019, they also grew 1.5x the rate of the rest of the economy. As a result of the 50 per cent cut, subsidies to universities for arts students subsequently fell from £243 per full time student to £121.50.

The third reason I am concerned is because of an increasingly negative attitude towards international students. Last month’s Sunday Times investigation “revealed” many universities were recruiting lucrative overseas students on lower grades than UK students. As Universities UK pointed out, this story failed to distinguish between entry requirements for preparatory foundation courses and full-time degrees. Nevertheless, a Home Office source in June said universities were “hooked” on the “drug” of international students, whose numbers had placed pressure on public services.

With immigration at a record high last year and the UK government eager to bring numbers down before a general election, it looks like international students will be paying the penalty.

It would not only be their fortunes that suffer either. Ours would dip too – with the latest figures finding a net contribution to the UK economy of £37.4 billion in 2021-2022, a 58 per cent increase from 2015-2016.

Net benefit

Last year I commissioned London Economics to look into the costs and benefits of international art and design students to the economy. The methodology measures the impact of a single cohort of international art and design students from 2021-2022 over the course of their studies. It factored in the cost to the public purse of their use of public services such as healthcare, education for dependents and community amenities.

Measured against the entire cohort of international students beginning studies that year, international art and design students were more likely to do first degrees – with a typically longer duration of study – and less likely to do postgraduate degrees, which tend to be shorter.

The results showed the overall contribution of international art and design students was £2.45 billion, with costs of £200 million: a net contribution of £2.25 billion. The average benefit-to-cost ratio of an art and design international student is, in fact, higher than the average international student across all subjects, including STEM.

The figures are even more startling when we consider the figures do not take into account the tax revenues many generate after graduation, nor the soft power that international students provide Britain. For example, a report in 2015 revealed that 55 world leaders had been educated in the UK.

While a large proportion of that £2.25 billion is generated by students based in London and the South-East of England, other regions of the UK benefit significantly as well. In the Midlands international art and design students make up 10 per cent of the cohort on creative courses and generate £232 million for the economy, enriching local businesses.

We ought not to reduce the contribution of international art and design students to economic value alone. Last month, James Purnell, vice chancellor of the University of Arts London – argued that Britain needs to recapture the spirit of creativity that boosted its creative industries in the 1990s. To do so, we must welcome global creative talent and ease the strict immigration rules that are leaving skills gaps in Britain’s creative industries, such as film and fashion. British culture has been enriched over the years through its generosity to newcomers who have brought fresh ideas and impetus. We would not only be financially poorer with fewer international art and design students, but culturally impoverished, too.

4 responses to “Follow the science – it is international art and design students who are of most value to the UK

  1. The problem with sector based cost/benefit studies is that if you add them all up, the total exceeds the size of the economy itself! The large net benefit figure for international students relies a) on the accuracy of the expenditure multipliers (the underlying study lacks any sensitivity tests) and b) assumes that all of the expenditure students make goes on goods/services made in the uk and/or owned by uk companies. There is also no causal mechanism that shows how this particular sector, teaching arts & design students, raise productivity by a sufficiently large amount to boost growth.

    1. The mistake we always make is to measure the industry itself, not the impact. Every local business who uses a designer to create a better website, every SME who designs a more competitive product, every bank that has a better app to manage your life with and every local authority with easier to use services – this is the real impact of the art and design industry and the price of not nurturing and supporting more grads, especially in a time of AI, could impact a lot more than just the grads themselves.

  2. Most academics in art and design are going to agree with this article but somehow as a sector our messages must not be understood or accepted at policy levels . Many art and design graduates are embedded in other industry areas, contributing with the transferable skill sets and capabilities that emanate from a creative education through the arts .This impact may be less easily quantified. Arguably this fluid approach to employability is a defining feature of HE at this time across all subject areas.It is convenient for the government to politicize HE to address agenda that are not directly connected to this objective nor the notion of education as a valuable process in and of itself .

Leave a Reply