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We have no idea how much education related exports are worth to the UK

New figures from the DfE tell a story of growing success when it comes to making money from overseas with education. But the data leaves more than a little to be desired, says David Kernohan.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The UK’s revenue from education related exports was £24.7 billion in 2017 – a rise of 34.7 per cent since 2010. Or so we are told.

Educational exports is a term used to relate a very disparate series of activities that have to do with generating overseas income from UK educational activity. A measure that incorporates estimates of publisher revenue, private school fees, and what international students might spend on food and accomodation (based on survey data from five years ago) is a curious one, but it does a job.

£14.4 billion of this is headline figure made up of Higher Education related income, specifically tuition fees and living costs from non-UK students. And there’s a further £640 million from transnational education.

Getting in to the data

We know all this from a new set of experimental statistics from the Department of Education. The resolution is low (data is accurate to the nearest £10 million!) – much of the data relies on survey-based research or information from private companies. Though information on fee income is from HESA and the Student Loans Company and is likely to be accurate, the data on living costs is extrapolated from the Student Expenditure and Income Survey (which you may recall refers to spending by a small sample of students in 2014-15).

So we’re very much on the indicative end of the data spectrum. These are statistics brought together to tell a story – and the narrative is very much one of success.

[Full screen]

In this visualisation I’ve plotted the way revenues have changed since 2010 – using revised figures that allow a comparison to be made between calendar years. You can choose the education sector and type of income (education related exports or transnational education) using the filters on the right, an appropriate split is shown in the colours used in the bar, running your mouse over these shows more detail.

Tab 2 lets you look at changes over time for each sub category in more detail as an area graph.

What can we see?

Comparing HE and FE is a salutary experience – whereas higher education is very much the engine room of headline growth in education export income, we’ve seen a decline in international-related income from FE – a huge decrease in living costs since 2011 playing the main part. The assumption is that FE student living expenditure is equal to that incurred by international HE students, so we are looking at a decline in student numbers (14,500 non-EU students were estimated to be studying in UK FE colleges in 2017 – incredibly this is not data that is directly collected on a population basis).

While we are talking about living costs – we should also note that part-time students are expected to spend the same as full-time students. The assumption here is that international students would be working during non-study time.

The more you dig into the data the more shaky the data begins to look. There’s a lot in here that is based on scaled up surveys (other overseas HE income comes from a survey of Tier 4 sponsors that got 14 responses), and on old data (HE TNE revenue is based on 2012-13 data, scaled up by the growth in the number of students), and on flat out estimates (10 per cent of education related broadcasting revenues are imagined to be from exports).

Pick a number

So why am I telling you about this? Higher Education does have a lot of good quality data, enabling us to answer common questions with a degree of accuracy. But as we move into less common issues, or outside of the sector, information becomes much more scarce. Education exports are a niche income stream – not the core interest of most involved in it, and we’ve never really been able to properly understand what it is work.

The trouble is, a simple looking government report like this will be cited everywhere. You’ll see it in press releases and planning documents – it will inform policy making and strategy formulation at all levels. It’s not quite a finger in the air, but it isn’t far off that.

There’s been a policy presumption towards growing transnational provision in HE (up from £340m to £600m in nine years, based on student numbers and a 2012-13 estimate of income). In FE transnational education has been worth £30m in each of those years.

But, as the latter makes clear, there is no reason to assume that these numbers are meaningful. They’ll be used to justify “encouraging growth, but more to do” pronouncements and efforts will continue. It’s all faintly depressing.

One response to “We have no idea how much education related exports are worth to the UK

  1. But the good news is that the govt has recognised the need to improve the data – which is shaky as you say – and there are several projects underway to sort this out.

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