Seven strategies for international growth in the post-pandemic world

Before Covid, the UK was lagging behind its competitors on international education. Maria Ditchburn thinks through how to make the most of the opportunity to gain back lost ground.

Maria Ditchburn is Strategy and Planning Manager at Teesside University.

The recent pandemic has sent shock waves throughout the world, impacting on the international economy, health and education. Many believe that the shape of global education may change forever.

For the UK, this comes hot on the heels of a complex disentanglement from the EU, necessitating the recently updated international education strategy for the UK. The UK is now looking beyond the EU for inspiration and for reassurance that there is life beyond Brexit.

For higher education, we have interpreted this as working to strengthen institutional global presence and influence, which has manifested itself through maximising partnerships and aggressively targeting new markets.

Since the marketisation of higher education, higher education providers have adapted and are now operating more like businesses: recognising students as customers and diversifying income streams. With uncertainty around EU markets and a decline in traditional revenue sources, a focus on international student recruitment was inevitable.

The changing international market

But the global education market has transformed in the last decade and competition is fierce. The growth of the UK market had already declined in the years preceding Covid and the EU exit, tipping the balance in favour of countries displaying a more “welcoming” offer to international students.

Recruitment in Canada has increased by 45 per cent in the last five years; China, and the US saw growth increase by 38 per cent and 24 per cent respectively for 2018-19. However the UK has stagnated with just 5 per cent growth over the period 2011-2018.

Australia, Canada and Germany all exceeded their international recruitment targets, ahead of time. And pre-pandemic, it looked like the same would be true for China, Japan and France, with the latter already more than halfway towards their 2027 target.

And just as the UK government wonders how it will reach the targets set out in the first iteration of the international education strategy almost two years ago, Covid-19 suddenly throws the world into unchartered territory posing an important question for educators: how does global study work when the world is in lockdown?

The medium term impact of the coronavirus on the global education market knocked previous star performers like Australia almost entirely out of the game. That nation – once flying high with exponential growth in international student recruitment – is now expected to be one of the hardest-hit countries, with recent evidence showing lost revenue from this source of almost AU$9 billion and further losses expected in 2021.

The tables have turned for Canadian institutions too; struggling to cope with what was described as “stratospheric” growth prior to 2020, the country reported a decline of 2.1 per cent this year. The new Biden administration is also predicted to reverse the Trump effect that saw thousands of students favour Canada over the US for the last few years.

In the midst of the clamour, we saw how agile the UK sector could be in our response: the swift move to online activity and blended learning, the dissemination of thousands of laptops for students and staff to minimise disruption to learning, and the implementation of policies and procedures to protect the student experience.

Government policy interventions, like the revamped immigration policy and the launch of the Graduate Route visa, stimulated global markets, generating a significant increase in applications from India and West Africa.

So how can the sector use this extremely challenging experience to regain lost ground in the longer term?

Managed growth

The susceptibility of the HE sector to geo-political occurrences is well documented, so how can an institution minimise the exposure to this risk? Enacting a strategic approach to international development must be a priority – continued and uncapped growth in student numbers may bring financial returns, but it must be managed in a way that protects the student experience, and doesn’t deter the exploration of other sources of income through innovation.

Quantity vs quality

The continued and, many would argue, essential, growth in international student numbers presents another debate – quantity versus quality. While government interventions to attract overseas students are welcome, with it comes the necessity and the responsibility to manage the wider impact on universities and the student experience.

We can look further afield for lessons learned here. Australia and Canada experienced remarkable growth since the introduction of their inaugural international education strategies, but there have been wider implications of this “bums on seats” approach. International students faced hostility from Australian residents, while Canadian institutions talked of “firefighting” through growth that was difficult to manage.

Both countries consequently adjusted their strategies to focus on quality, omitting targets for recruitment in favour of performance indicators for student satisfaction and mobility. What they do now may be an interesting lesson for global education.

Diversification

For many UK higher education providers the pandemic exposed a double-edged sword of reliance on international recruitment; firstly, as a principal income stream itself; secondly, an over reliance on one or two markets, with many providers hosting an international student body of well above 50 per cent Chinese students. Institutions should look to diversify on both counts, by assessing commercialisation opportunities and the development potential of new geographical areas.

A student-centric experience

Those who thought the international education strategy was destined to gather dust on a shelf in Whitehall will be pleased that the student experience has now been placed at the heart of a revised version released in February. This student-centric focus should be replicated in all institutions to capture the international student voice and ensure the quality UK education they seek is delivered.

Leverage institutional strengths

As with any good strategy, institutions need to focus on their strengths, and in particular their differentiators, to succeed in the global market; be that research power and impact; enterprise; subject-specific areas of excellence or international student satisfaction. The benefit of a global market is the ability to segment and tailor campaigns by location – for example, research shows engineering to be a popular subject choice for South Asian students.

Trusted partnerships

Collaborative working has been imperative throughout global lockdowns, particularly research alliances, strengthening key UK and global partnerships. Moving forward, the sharing of expertise and best practice through impactful research projects, student and staff mobility and conciliatory policy will help the sector to shape and influence policymaking and address global priorities.

Creative mobility

A disappointing by-product of the EU exit is the departure from the Erasmus+ scheme, which has seen thousands of students immerse themselves in global study and work experiences. Obviously, this activity has stalled recently, but it is likely every institution’s intention to resurrect this once travel restrictions are lifted.

From the ashes of the Erasmus comes the new Turing scheme – an alternative mobility initiative open to students beyond the HE sector and cited to enhance participation from disadvantaged students. The jury is still out on whether it has the potential to rival the success of Erasmus+.

In the mean time, some institutions have introduced virtual mobility schemes. This innovative approach is to be applauded and will be welcomed by students with limited options to gain international experiences.

In the longer term though, educators and students alike would agree that there is no substitute for the real thing. And that is why, alongside hastily preparing Turing bids, institutions should also now be preparing to leverage their own international networks to enhance their global mobility offer from staff and student exchange to full year placements. As nations look to strengthen international relations as part of the global post-Covid recovery, a strong global offer will be a key selling point for institutions in the future.

On the whole, a renewed focus on enhancing the international student experience and removing barriers to education must be well received, but must be supported by robust data on international student outcomes, including progression, employment and satisfaction levels.

The commitment of a unified government approach to international higher education is welcome and indeed, essential. But this broad approach may fail to embrace and champion the different types of institutions represented in the UK sector, and without robust international strategies of their own, institutions may struggle to capitalise on the opportunities to enhance their global position.

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