It feels like we all need a bit of good news at the moment. The announcement this weekend that the government has set a target to recruit 600,000 international higher education students annually by 2030 is certainly that. It marks a long-awaited shift by government, backed by a commitment to a joined-up approach across departments, which even the Home Office appears to have shared.
This has already delivered the hugely welcome commitment to extend post-study work opportunities for Tier IV students to six months for undergraduates and Masters students, and a year for doctoral students. It might also explain last week’s announcement that PhD-level jobs will be exempt from the Tier II numbers cap.
We have been calling for this shift in direction, and for a target-based strategy for a long time. We know that we have an education system to be proud of, and that our ability to recruit international students to study here is hugely beneficial to our universities and the UK more widely, so it has been frustrating to see us losing ground compared to places like Australia and Canada as a direct result of government policy which sought to limit growth.
Finally – perhaps just when we need it most – we have some movement in the right direction.
But the publication of the strategy must only be the start. We need to keep working hard, both as a university sector and with government, to get some momentum behind these goals. So here’s a little seven-point plan just to get us started:
1. Let’s make the most of a bit of good news
The decision to extend post-study work opportunities for undergraduates and masters’ graduates to six months, with 12 months for those with PhDs is a real step in the right direction. While we don’t think it goes far enough, and have called for a two year post-study work opportunity, we should do our very best to explain to prospective students around the world that something good just happened.
2. We’re being asked to dance. Let’s not trip on our own feet
I am really pleased that the strategy is presented as something the education sector and government have a shared responsibility for delivering. Yes, there is action we would like government to take (*cough* see above…) but we could also do a better job ourselves of coordinating our efforts, pooling our intelligence and working seamlessly with other agencies. UUKi and the British Council have been jointly charged with working to enhance support for transnational education; we’ll want to do more to enhance the way the UK is promoted internationally as a study destination, and we can do more to channel insights from universities to inform action by government where only they can help. In particular, I’d like to see universities more engaged in the Study UK Discover You campaign, and its reach expanded to Europe.
3. We need constructive suggestions on improvements to Tier 4
We should also welcome the commitment to consider how the visa process could be improved for applicants and seize that opportunity to put forward constructive ideas about how the process can be made more user-friendly and less off-putting for applicants; as well as more workable for universities, and cheaper as a result. This is even more necessary if EU nationals are to fall within this system. It will be unworkable and continue to be off-putting unless it is streamlined. One suggestion would be to review the use of credibility interviews – or even suspend them entirely unless a specific risk is identified. Another would be to look again at in-country switching rules to improve the student experience and the educational pathways available in the UK.
4. Achieving the 600,000 target will require continued political permission
This was very nearly a strategy without a numerical recruitment target. This was the tricky political bit, and Chris Skidmore deserves some credit for securing it. We should not take it for granted that we’ll always have political support for growth. International students make a significant contribution to every town and city with a university in the neighbourhood. We know that international students generate about £29 billion for the UK though direct and knock-on effects on the UK economy and support over 200,000 jobs.
Although we know that most voters are positive about international students, our problem in recent years has been the way we have been caught up in fraught immigration policy. If we want to sustain the political permission to grow international student numbers to meet the 600,000 target, we need keep explaining how they support small business from Paisley to Plymouth; create opportunities for UK students by sustaining courses and supporting world class facilities which benefit everyone.
There are great examples of universities which find creative ways to ensure the wider community benefits from the presence of international students and graduates, like the Sheffield China Gateway scheme, which links local business with the growing pool of Chinese-speaking talent in UK universities to help them export. As we talk about the target, we should routinely talk about this kind of thing. If you have a better example, let me know.
5. It’s good to see outbound mobility feature in the strategy, but we need substance
I am delighted that a strategy, which started out strictly trade-focused, recognises the importance of outbound mobility. There is a whole page in the strategy on the subject, but no concrete commitments. UK students benefit from international experiences, with a demonstrable effect on academic and employment outcomes as UUKi’s Gone International series of research reports has shown. This is particularly true for those from the least advantaged backgrounds, who are the least likely to go abroad, but benefit disproportionately in terms of academic outcomes and employment when they do.
I think we owe those students who lack wealthy parents to keep hammering away at the argument that there should be more structured financial support at a national level to support international study, work and volunteering opportunities abroad. I am delighted that the strategy recognises the Go International Campaign which UUKi launched last year. I’ll be continuing to press for the “actionable policy” promised by Sam Gyimah. A first step would be to guarantee that there will be a national replacement mechanism for Erasmus should we lose access to it in the event of a no-deal Brexit (#supportstudyabroad).
6. We can do more to support transitions to employment for international graduates
We’re currently working on some research to illustrate what universities do to support international graduates to take their first steps in the labour market, either in the UK or abroad. We’d like to do more to share good examples across the sector to enable universities to learn from each other in this area. We’re also working on legal guidance for employers who want to take on students as Tier II sponsors; and we’ll be publishing research on the outcomes of our international graduates between two and five years post-graduation, based on a survey of 16,000 individuals around the world. Together we think this will illustrate how active universities are already, and how they can improve, as well as helping more UK employers take advantage of opportunities to recruit international graduates with scarce skills.
7. Let’s get the facts straight
I think what really changed thinking in government over recent months was the appreciation that education exports are worth £20 billion to the UK economy, a 26 per cent increase since 2010. We demonstrated how lacklustre growth since 2011 had cost the UK up to £9 billion in lost export earnings. Janet Illieva showed how growth was correlated with post study work policy.
Those figures made an impact, but our export figures are not based on the most robust methodology and are not currently part of the suite of national statistics. Getting a better handle on this, including the value of transnational education, and presenting education export data in a way that will allow us to show how it compares to sectors like financial services (we’re bigger I think, if you exclude banking) will help us make the case for continued action.
These steps are not grand, or sketchy or unachievable. We could, and should, do all these things. I am sure that there will be other, better and bolder ideas as we begin to expand on the conversation started by the publication of the strategy. But I believe it marks a turning point for government. It should be a turning point for us too.