Forging an international higher education strategy for Wales

After much anticipation the International Strategy for Wales was published on 14th January by the Welsh Government, in the same month as Brexit happened.

Although it is an overarching strategy, those of us in higher education are interested in what it says to the sector about future objectives and also how it relates to the UK’s International Education Strategy that was jointly published by the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade on 16th March last year.

A principle aim of the International Strategy for Wales is to provide “strategic direction for everyone who is engaged in the international space”, with an invitation to all of us to pull in the same direction, and to project ourselves through key values. Wales has been pioneering in its introduction of the Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015), and the Welsh Government was the first in the UK to declare a climate emergency, and is committed to green energy and becoming a low carbon society, all of which contribute to Wales’ key values.

However, the International Strategy for Wales is a general strategy and, although very much welcomed, its significance for higher education, and the contributions that higher education might make to the Strategy, need a bit of teasing out in order to begin to forge from it an international strategy for higher education in Wales.

Finding HE in the strategy

There are three core ambitions set out in the Strategy and for each there is a peg for higher education; to (1) raise Wales’ profile internationally for which higher education is asked to help in growing the number of international connections with diaspora and alumni to 500,000 with 5 years; to (2) grow our economy for which institutions might assist in showcasing its work in creativity, technology and sustainability, and through its research excellence, and in facilitating graduate start-ups; and to (3) establish Wales as a globally responsible nation not least through institutional commitment to, and promotion of, the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

The Strategy also talks about brands, presenting “Wales as a place to invest, work, live, visit and study”. Of course, ‘Wales’ itself has been a strong brand in international higher education for many years, and the Strategy appears to seek to build upon this stating that the “Cymru Wales brand will be used to promote Wales to the world”.

‘This is Wales’ is presented as a statement of intent and an invitation to discover and reconsider Wales, and under this banner explores the dimensions of people, products and place. For higher education, in terms of both people and products, the Strategy recognises that international students who come to study in Wales enrich cultural diversity and contribute more than £600 million in export earnings to the Welsh economy, and the Strategy would welcome an increase in the number of such students studying in Wales.

This is Wales

Currently the Welsh higher education sector coordinates its international recruitment activities through Global Wales which was set up to promote Wales’ higher education offer through its Study in Wales brand, and is a partnership between British Council Wales, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Universities Wales, and the Welsh Government. Through market research it has identified India, North America and Vietnam as key markets in which to further develop international student recruitment although, as elsewhere, students from China continue to form a dominant market. With the proposed re-introduction of post-study work visa’s some of these markets are likely to develop rapidly.

The role of alumni is also identified within the Strategy as a means of promoting Wales by encouraging alumni “to spread the message on their return home about their experiences in Wales”. Universities have a key role to play in this, but the relatively recent move in Wales away from a federal structure may present challenges in identifying and maintaining links with earlier alumni and graduates, but it is a promising area for institutional collaboration.

In terms of research, the Strategy encourages international collaboration and recognises that Wales’ “world-leading research is helping to fuel the knowledge economy” and, in the context of the landscape and natural environment, in positioning Wales at the “forefront of marine energy and climate science”.

Getting transnational

So the International Strategy for Wales contains much for the higher education sector to consider, but one area that it is silent on is transnational education (TNE), where students study at an overseas institution for an award from a Welsh university. By contrast, the UK International Education Strategy which, unlike the Welsh Strategy, is focused solely on education, reports that the UK received £1.8 billion from TNE in 2016 and encourages the sector to grow its TNE provision to help achieve an overall 4% annual increase in revenue from educational exports.

Indeed, if reduced air traffic due to climate change is realised, and/or if the global coronavirus outbreak and any future diseases have a prolonged impact on international travel, then TNE may become the most environmentally and health friendly form of educational export, second perhaps to purely online distance learning courses.

In Wales, a Universities UK International report published in February 2020 on TNE data for Welsh providers is timely in reporting that there was a 34.5% growth in TNE students linked to Welsh providers between 2013/14 and 2017/18 resulting in around 27,000 students. This contributes to the Wales Strategy in helping to grow the economy and, although these students may never visit Wales, they could also help to raise the profile of Wales as students and alumni of Welsh universities, and become ‘ambassadors’ for Wales. So TNE needs to be explicitly included in any future international strategy for higher education in Wales.

How to make it happen

Distilling from the Strategy a way forward, an initial blueprint for those of us working in Wales might be to consider forging an international strategy for higher education and projecting Wales through:

  • our key values as featured in the Well Being of Future Generations Act;
  • our declaration of a climate emergency and move to a low carbon society, and being at the forefront of the green energy revolution;
  • showcasing modern “creativity, technology and sustainability” examples;
  • promoting our cultural assets, diversity, and natural beauty of Wales;
  • pride in our educational quality and excellent student experience;
  • celebrating the quality and impact of our research excellence;
  • promoting global education opportunities and recognising that not all our students will visit Wales, at least initially;
  • growing and maintaining connections with alumni and empowering them to be ‘ambassadors’ for Wales and our key values.

Now with an International Strategy for Wales and the UK’s International Education Strategy the higher education sector in Wales has frameworks within which it can forge its own strategy and deliver for Wales, its institutions and, most of all, its students.

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