Looking back on International Higher Education Forum 2024

Jamie Arrowsmith reflects on the long-term importance of international collaboration, engagement and exchange

Jamie Arrowsmith is Director of Universities UK International.

Last week saw the return of UUKi’s International HE Forum – our flagship event, and the first as an in-person conference since 2019.

More than 330 people from the world of international higher education and research came together for two days of thought-provoking, challenging and (I hope) often entertaining discussion and debate, hosted in the beautiful art-deco surroundings of the University of London’s Senate House.


And one thing is clear – there was plenty to discuss. From geopolitical uncertainty and global challenges to the domestic and international policy environment for international recruitment, via the role of universities in knowledge diplomacy, how to support employability for TNE students, and the challenges of delivering truly equitable partnerships in research – there were a whole host of critical issues on the agenda.

For me, three themes ran through the conference. First, the principles on which global engagement is predicated – openness, cooperation, an interest in and a shared understanding of the need for dialogue and exchange across national boundaries and cultures – are being questioned more than ever. This topic was picked up in the opening plenary session on global engagement in uncertain times, and indeed through many of the sessions. A key message was that education and research can be a bridge in difficult times – but we need to actively develop the skills and capabilities to navigate the complexities of international relations, and that means investment in SHAPE disciplines.

Second, and largely because of this changing context, we need to think differently – and creatively – about internationalisation and global engagement. The issue of equity and equitable partnerships was a hot topic, and the need to listen to partners in the global south, and learn from each other about how we best navigate the complex issues that affect collaborations imbued with contested and often very challenging histories. There was also recognition that many of the challenges we face – as a sector, and as a global community – need more than academic engagement and good will. As Sir Mark Walport said, politics with a big P matter – and we need to engage and inform governments if we are to deliver change.

And finally, it would have been impossible to miss the fact that one issue was at the forefront of everyone’s mind: international recruitment, and the government’s anticipated response to the forthcoming Migration Advisory Committee review of the Graduate route. There is, clearly, huge concern about the direction of travel given recent media coverage and political rhetoric, which was acknowledged by Lord Offord, the trade minister, when delivering the opening key note.

Return of the MAC

There is a growing fear that, whatever the MAC says, government intends to take action for reasons of cynical, short term political gain. As Lord Johnson said in his remarks to the opening plenary: the incoherence across government policy is palpable at a time when we need grown up, rational policy making. It’s a message that I am sure many would endorse. However, across the two days, there was nevertheless a sense of optimism. Not because of a naive belief that the challenges we are all facing will somehow disappear overnight, more that the benefits of international collaboration, engagement and exchange remains an invaluable prize – and that over the long-term, the values underpinning global academic cooperation will sustain.

This message was most obvious in the launch of phase two of the #WeAreInternational campaign. Attendees were treated to a premiere of the hero film, introducing each of the students to be featured in our ongoing film series. Simultaneously, universities across the country rallied to social media to share the stories and contributions of international students on their campuses.

In the current context, #WeAreInternational serves as a vital reminder of the immense contributions of international students to the UK, and you can find out more about the campaign here. It reminds us that each of these students have their own stories and challenges they have overcome, as well as the boundless personal bravery in moving your entire life across the world in pursuit of a world-class education. It was a hopeful note in difficult times – and one that I will certainly remember.

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