This week the IU published two reports illustrating the UK’s competitive advantage as a study destination for international students. These reports, one focusing on the views of Postgraduate Taught (PGT) and the other focusing on Postgraduate Research (PGR) students, follow a similar one published before Christmas which looked at the undergraduate experience. Together, these three reports present the most comprehensive and detailed study available of the perceived strengths, and weaknesses, of the UK higher education system from the perspective of international students themselves.
The beauty of these reports is that they illustrate how we compare with the other countries which we consider to be our competitors in international student recruitment – the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The findings were based on I-grad’s International Student Barometer, which surveys students studying in more than 800 universities worldwide, including 100 in the UK to which over 365,000 international students responded.
The results are impressive. The UK ranks number one for satisfaction for both undergraduate and PGR students. We also rank first at all levels for recommendations – a higher proportion of international students would recommend the UK than any of its major rivals. 91% of undergraduates would recommend the UK; 90% of PGR and 89% of PGT students.
What I find particularly heart-warming is the fact that the UK has improved satisfaction scores across a wide range of measures of satisfaction since 2008, especially in teaching and learning. So, for example, the UK has achieved increased satisfaction in 81 of 86 measures of the PGR student experience including all 23 measures of the study experience. This reflects the fact that the UK has a well-established tradition of seeking and responding to the views of their students in a continuous drive to improve the quality of what they do. We should not take that for granted and, in my view, it is a feature of the UK system of which we deserve to be genuinely proud.
The headline findings are a fantastic endorsement of the quality of the UK offer, but the granular details also offer rich material from which we can learn about where we could improve. So, while the IU will be using the top-line messages as part of a co-ordinated campaign to promote the UK education offer internationally, working with the British Council and the Government’s GREAT campaign, we will also be looking in detail at the areas of perceived weakness, through our International Student Experience conference.
It goes without saying that one issue relates to the UK’s visa offer – and in particular perceptions about employment opportunities post-graduation. We will continue to argue to those parts of government who don’t yet share our view that the UK should revise its policy on visas and create clearer and more generous post study work routes. But, at the same time, we will work harder to correct misconceptions about the employment opportunities that are available, and the fantastic employment outcomes of our graduates, here, in their home countries, or elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, we would also like to create opportunities for universities to learn from the best current practice around international careers support. I know that many UK universities have done great things to provide tailored support to international graduates, and to work with employers to overcome concerns about recruiting international graduates. I think much good would come of sharing those experiences more widely.
The other perennial issue is the integration of students – all the countries covered by the report, including the UK, score relatively poorly for satisfaction with opportunities to make ‘host friends’. Again I know of many innovative approaches to tackling this, but I think we can play a modest role working with bodies like UKCISA to examine the most successful approaches and spread knowledge about them.
I think a great strength of the UK HE system is the way in which our universities are networked, at every professional level, which enables the constant exchange of ideas and practice. It is part of the explanation for the continuous improvement we can track through the views of our students.
There is much to celebrate here – and we will. But we should refuse to be complacent. We know that other countries are increasingly focused on the importance of attracting brilliant international students. The benefits are enormous and flow far beyond universities themselves. Word of mouth and the experience of students themselves are increasingly powerful forces in student choice, as the social media replaces traditional sources of information and advice about the study. We should be honest with ourselves about where we could do better, and work together as a sector to bring the good up to the level of the best.