A bumpy road ahead for the UK’s international education strategy

The government does still have a strategy for international education. How's that going?

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Right at the very end of a busy week for international education, the Department for Education and the Department for Business and Trade published a 2023 update for the government’s International Education Strategy. Lovely timing.

On the face of it the update is fairly routine – a performance of recommitting to the 600,000 a year target in a week where you’d be forgiven for thinking the government was ashamed of it. But it’s worth diving into the annex for a deeper look at how the government is managing the international side of higher education.

The income question

The original 2019 version of the strategy saw two headline ambitions – international students to be increased to 600,000 a year by 2030 (or much much sooner, as the case turned out to be), and education exports up to £35bn a year.

On the question of education exports it’s worth repeating that exports are “transactions between UK residents and non-residents” – so the lion’s share here is international student fees and living expenditure, which in 2020 were worth £18bn of the total estimate of £25.6bn, with research contracts and other higher education exports revenue estimated at around £1.5bn.

Education exports overall increased by just 0.8 per cent between 2019 and 2020 – with further education and English language teaching plummeting – but the government still feels it is “on track” to hit the 2030 target, with an increase of just over three per cent a year needed. Any growth at all in the heavily impacted pandemic year of 2020 is some cause for celebration, but it’s not clear what the evidence is for making such an optimistic growth projection. This week’s changes to dependant visas were not accompanied by an impact assessment, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have an impact.

There are also problems with accurately estimating the data in a timely fashion, as shown by the fact we only have data from 2020 currently, with 2021 due out towards the end of this year.

While DfE and DBT remain keen to trumpet the value of education exports, this is an area where we could do with more granular detail. “Exports” sound uncontroversial on paper, but the moment we dig down into specific components, other government departments suddenly take a serious interest. £35bn is all well and good as a headline aspiration, but what proportion of that should come from international students in the UK (the Home Office will have thoughts) and what should be the year-on-year increase? What’s the ambition with growing research income – how does it fit in with increasing scrutiny of sector engagement with autocratic governments?

Promoting (and regulating) TNE

And how about transnational education? Last Thursday saw the Office for Students publish an insight briefing on TNE, running the (substantial) numbers and emphasising that its regulatory remit is not limited to England. Higher education TNE was worth £0.78bn to the UK in 2020 (the Office for Students’ figure of £2.3bn also includes other forms of TNE such as schools), and has thrived in the last decade with relatively little scrutiny. It remains to be seen how new – and sorely needed – duties for universities on sexual harassment and misconduct as well as free speech will affect the practice and viability of provision on overseas campuses and with overseas partners. TNE might be a good potential earner for universities, but it’s also a great way to make a big loss.

The government’s update doesn’t give us much in terms of reported progress on the promotion of TNE (actions 19 and 20 in the strategy). We have had a low-key report from the British Council which found that those working in TNE think it is a valuable endeavour, and plenty of visits of trade delegations. We learn that international education champion Steve Smith has visited all priority countries, and that “regulatory barriers were raised during government meetings in each country.”

What these are is not specified, but the divergence from international quality assurance standards following the QAA’s demission as Designated Quality Body may well be coming up – this was a key part of QAA chief executive Vicki Stott’s evidence to the Lords inquiry into OfS, with stories of foreign governments unwilling to allow new branch campus agreements. Really if we’re assessing progress towards the international education strategy’s goals, this should be getting a mention.

Action updates

Potentially one of the more interesting if complex parts of the government’s international education strategy is the possible provision of student finance options for international students (action 4), which – if it could be made to bear practical fruit – would entirely up-end the international recruitment system and inevitably create a whole host of unintended consequences. But it’s also enormously appealing to those who believe in widening participation on a global scale and are uncomfortable with international study being the preserve of the rich or those whose families have borrowed enormous amounts of money in problematic ways. On this action we hear that Universities UK International has now met with organisations offering alternative finance, and a roundtable with sector and student representatives is forthcoming.

Other aspects of the strategy look to have seen less progress or be fizzling out. On the question of academic experience of international students (action 5), those with an interest in this question may be surprised to learn that this is now “complete”, with LSE Consulting’s recent report for OfS being the final word on the matter.

Developing investment opportunities in the education sector (action 14) has little to report, aside from booming edtech investments delivering major Foreign Direct Investment “wins” (a “refreshed edtech proposition” will follow).

Finally and somewhat tragicomically given the week’s events, we also learn that action 3 – strengthening the visa offer for international students – is also now complete, with the graduate route and skilled worker route now live. Another reminder that the Home Office is the ultimate driver of much of the progress towards – and away from – the strategy’s objectives.

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