The UK’s international education strategy needs to be genuinely world leading

There's a lot to like in the ambition of the UK's international education strategy. But for James Pitman, more work is needed.

James Pitman is Managing Director of Development for UK and Europe at Study Group

The UK government recently announced its much anticipated ‘enhanced’ International Education Strategy.

Let’s begin with the good news. The appointment of Sir Steve Smith is excellent. He is highly regarded across the sector and very experienced in the international education world, having seen the challenges that international students faced from his time as a vice chancellor and his work at Universities UK.

It’s also good to see a long-term cross-department commitment to growing the sector, unusual when so many policies succumb to the chopping and changing of political winds. There are welcome indications around policy intention and messaging, a new willingness to engage with international students themselves and with sector representatives. The mood music is pleasing. And yet.

Aspiration needs action

This is a document which promises aspiration rather than delivering the tools to make it happen. If the UK really wants to steal a march in the global competition, as I believe it does, it will need to go further and faster. We are not the only ones reviewing our global offer in the face of a devastating pandemic and a shrinking economy.

On some points, the strategy remains the same. The target, for example, hasn’t changed: to grow UK education exports to £35 billion per year, and increase the number of international higher education students hosted in the UK to 600,000 per year, both by 2030. Although Sir Steve is right to say this will be a challenge in the current circumstances, achieving these ambitions will require an average annual growth rate of around 4 per cent in education export revenue and around 2 per cent in international student numbers.

In the absence of Covid-19, we probably would have exceeded the student numbers in 2020/21 based on the growth trajectory we were on. Indeed, since the HESA numbers the target is based on only takes into account HE students at universities, if you added in higher education students already in the UK at alternative providers and those in the UK on a pathway to HE, we probably exceeded the target back in 2019/20.

I would suggest that at the next update in 2022, a collaborative approach should be taken to agree an appropriate target – one which the whole sector can support.

We also need to outline how we plan to achieve these numbers. As someone who works in an organisation which operates internationally, I’m particularly conscious that the success of our measures will be judged not in Whitehall but by students and parents in our recruitment markets. So, I propose we take a closer look at key elements of the strategy.

Measurement mechanism

Firstly, we must incorporate a mechanism for effective and timely measurement. There is currently a massive variance in sector value depending on whether you’re looking at figures from the ONS or the DfE – the DfE says international education is worth over £20bn, the ONS just over £10bn. That’s a big difference in terms of its impact on GDP.

The growth target, whether it remains the same or is indeed revised upwards, should also be broken down by sector – HE, FE, ELT, school, transnational education etc. The value of an international student starting their journey in the UK on a pathway course before moving to an undergraduate programme then postgraduate, before working in the UK for at least two years, is obviously different to a student on a short-term English language learning course. We must recognise that the impact of all students is not the same, whether measured in financial or academic terms.

We also need better and more rapid feedback on student numbers. This is a highly competitive sector globally and the change of administration in the US makes that country once again more appealing as an HE destination for international students. Anything short of quarterly measurement, recognising trends towards multiple start dates for courses throughout the year, could see us fall dangerously behind our competitors.

Transnational education

It is important that transnational education (TNE) is a key theme within the overall strategy, but it needs to be recognised as a different strand of activity. It serves a different segment of the market and is not as valuable to the economy as in-country delivery.

And despite its many attractions, TNE does not result in the same student experience; there are no UK employment benefits; no contribution to the economy of the UK by graduates; income generated is often difficult to repatriate; and there’s obviously a soft power consideration as students engage less with the UK and are therefore less powerful ambassadors. Care is needed to ensure TNE does not become an excuse for the legacy of a Theresa May government obsessed with net migration figures.

However, TNE can open opportunities to those who never had it. For the vast majority of students across the world, international education remains out of reach for reasons of price. Delivery in country, potentiality mixing with digital education, opens up access to study for those talented students with restricted finances.

Home Office cooperation

The International Education Strategy is sponsored by the DfE and the DIT, not the Home Office. This is, I believe, a serious cause for concern. The Home Office needs to fully and visibly commit to this effort and engage proactively with the sector to create an attractive and competitive offer for students.

This means watching what others are doing. Barriers to the US are now being lifted and Canada has just announced it will make post-study work available to those who have studied online. We should be evaluating options from the student perspective, moving first rather than catching up wherever possible.

How should we do this? A comprehensive review of the whole student journey (not just the Graduate Route) needs to be undertaken and regularly benchmarked against competitor nations.

We should also send a clear signal to all of our markets. A single student visa for the whole student journey would be universally welcomed. Not allowing students on short term study visas to switch to the Student visa (formerly known as Tier 4) in the UK is an unnecessary barrier – if the student fulfils the requirements on entry, if they comply, why not allow them to switch in the easiest way possible? It is surely more cost effective for the UKVI to manage that in the UK rather than maintaining expensive in country resources in the international student’s home country?

Focus areas

The strategy states the government will focus on:

  • The student application process – excellent, a holistic review with sector and student input is essential.
  • Graduate outcomes and employability – this is a key focus area and we all need better data in order to enhance this.
  • The academic experience of international students – this is welcome, quality standards must be maintained and enhanced and adapted. Student support must go hand in hand and there will undoubtedly have been good learnings from Covid in this aspect. Blended education is here to stay – there is a huge opportunity but the best option is going to be online combined with some on-campus learning. Sir Michael Barber, the outgoing chair of the OfS, is due to publish a review into it later this month – this will make for interesting reading.
  • Alternative student finance – good. Capital is cheap and these students will likely become key influencers and contributors (commercial, political, cultural etc.) back in their home countries, so innovative investment tools to finance those students to be able to take advantage of international education seems eminently sensible.

The upgraded strategy is certainly promising and I welcome it wholeheartedly. But we need to go further. The government and HE sectors need regular and accurate data on sector value. We need to lock in review points each year to 2030 in order to ensure the strategy remains under review and is responsive to changes in the competitive environment.

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