March 2019

It has never been more important for the UK to send a clear signal to our international neighbours and friends that we value increased international collaboration in education.

The government has released its international education strategy. The press release highlights the strategy’s focus on education as an export, consistent with its origin in the Department of Trade. 

But, as a shared strategy with the Department for Education, it must also recognise the importance of international collaboration and joint innovation to the internationalisation agendas of education institutions in the UK and overseas.

As we move closer to Brexit, it must also drive forward the UK’s knowledge diplomacy and soft power agenda, built on trust and shared concerns.

There is perhaps a further question of whether its targets for recruitment to UK study are realistic, in the light of changing demographics and increasing investment by the countries that used to send us students in their domestic education capacity. 

It is always a challenge for government to balance everything that we hope international education to achieve. Has this strategy succeeded?

Student recruitment

The strategy focuses on inward recruitment and investment into the UK sector derived from student fees, student spending, and related trade. 

The levels of UK based recruitment have risen less than 2% per year on average over the last 4 years, whilst the growth to our competitor nations (particularly Australia, Canada, USA and Germany) has in some cases been over 10%. 

The demographics of the key recruitment target nations of India and China show an expected decline of up to 30% in the coming 5 years of the primary recruitment ages of 18 to 24 year olds.

The efforts of India, China, Latin America and South Asia to increase the capacity and quality of their own higher education sectors, mean more students are likely to study at home.

The global trend towards geographically connected mobility through education ‘hubs’ in ASEAN, South America, Northern Africa / Middle East and, of course, the EU through the Macron Sorbonne proposals for a European Education Area, suggests that recruitment to the UK will be under yet more pressure.

However, the International Education Strategy gives some key pointers to ways in which the UK can fight back.

In particular, the geographical focus on knowledge economy nations plays particularly well to the niche strength of the UK in quality provision, leading edge research and autonomous sector diversity. This in turn will help focus recruitment and exchange, ensuring we have the most flexible and extendable support structures in place.

Additionally, the positive references to TNE perhaps underplay the powerful value of a more credit-based mobility structure. If we are able to extend the agreements on mutual recognition of awards, we have the opportunity to provide shorter and more targeted mobility and UK study elements. 

Furthermore, agreements extending into professional practice can provide more comprehensive ‘licence to practice’ based awards that increase both the attractiveness of UK awards and the potential for commercial and entrepreneurial connections.

Collaboration

The strategy rightly focuses on the importance of recruiting students to study in the UK. While, however, its concentration on the export value of overseas students will perhaps be well received by those concerned about ‘international spending’, it may also present a negative perception of the UK as focused only on the financial benefits to itself.

When this is combined with visa policy that offers fewer post study work options than competitor nations, it is easy to understand why international leaders are concerned that the UK is pursuing an inward financially focused policy, at the expense of the value of collaboration and partnership.

A more detailed look at the strategy alleviates some of these concerns. The commitment to joint research and to broader collaboration is clear. One might also recognise that an export strategy relies on the offer being attractive to its clients. 

The UK continues to consolidate its position as a leading sector in world rankings, not only for its leading universities but through the extended sector. It demonstrates strength in depth with a large proportion of its sector occupying the top 200 places worldwide. 

It is perhaps worth remembering the colossal size of the global HE sector into which this 200 fits. Brazil alone has over 2000 Universities, Japan has around 800. The total size of the global HE sector in terms of university numbers is not clear, but all statistics suggest that it is well over 60,000 institutions. In that context holding an entire sector largely in the top percentage points of international rankings is more than admirable, particularly when the UK sector itself is positively diverse and largely autonomous.

The country is therefore well placed to be at the forefront in meeting global challenges through its research, and to contribute to global innovation and enterprise through its graduates. 

Additionally, the UK has been at the forefront of establishing new structures for recognition of qualifications, that support extended flexibility and greater scope for collaborative awards. Such flexibility is applied to the growing ‘hub’ structures too. The South American hub is connected through an equivalent mutual recognition agreement to the UK in each country, the ASEAN hub development has been led by the UK in conjunction with Germany, France and the Netherlands, and the newly emerging hub across the Maghreb countries is based on connection to the UK.

This collaboration need not necessarily place extra demands on the visa system or immigration requirements.

International graduates are ambassadors for the UK on return, and research is now almost always internationally collaborative. Neither dimension is automatically restricted by the current visa regime, and the International Education Strategy makes clear its commitment to revising and extending its visa welcome to bright and capable individuals.

The UK can therefore present itself as an attractive option for collaboration, but the need for positive messaging is clear; especially to the international sectors and governments, who might otherwise misconstrue the UK’s intentions.

The challenge to soft power and knowledge diplomacy

Knowledge diplomacy and soft power are built on trust. That trust is best achieved through recognising the commitment of the UK to solving shared challenges, and in contributing to the growth of higher education in other countries. 

By contributing to improved HE quality and research strength in other nations we provide a fertile base for ongoing and sustainable collaboration. Mobility and exchange is enhanced, and joint research is more attainable and valuable.

In the light of an extended view of the UK’s role internationally, beyond European borders, this collaboration and genuine partnership support is ever more important.

Whilst the international education strategy is silent on the mechanisms for knowledge diplomacy, there is nonetheless an overall sense of reaching out internationally.

Indeed, the very presence of an International Education Strategy demonstrates a commitment that has not been evident to the international sectors (or national perhaps) in the past.

The bright new future?

The Department for International Trade may feel therefore that the strategy properly reflects the needs for clear targets and ambition for inward investment. The Department for Education may also recognise the building blocks for education collaboration and partnership that underpins that ambition. The various HE agencies involved in international connection for the HE sector can connect and align to the strategy in ways that support their international objectives.

The international HE community will undoubtedly read the strategy with interest, not only those nations who wish to compete for engagement in the international sectors but those who wish to collaborate and build in partnership.

The strategy supports all such intentions, but practical and sustained effort to overcome challenges and to present the strategic benefits of the UK sector worldwide remain a key focus of attention in the coming years.