Image of students taken from above
Turning their backs on a UK education? Students in mortarboards. Photo ©

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September 2018

The UK education sector has long been one of the most successful in the world, but new reports highlight the growing challenges it faces. Insight looks at the evidence.

A huge opportunity to be seized – or squandered

According to the OECD there are 5 million students worldwide engaged in overseas tertiary education programmes. That is 5 million future business and social leaders, many engaged with British institutions. Almost 2 million international students have graduated from universities in the UK over the last ten years. Even more have achieved UK qualifications in other countries. As well as the significant economic benefits they have brought, these international alumni are valuable assets for the UK’s international influence – for example, the UK has educated the current leaders of around one in four countries in the world. This lucrative and important market is growing – but so is the international competition. According to HEPI, the UK has recently lost its top spot for educating world leaders to the US. And some commentators predict that the UK is soon to lose its place to Australia as the 2nd most popular international study destination.

The UK has recently lost its top spot for educating world leaders to the US. And some commentators predict that the UK is soon to lose its place to Australia as the 2nd most popular international study destination

The UK’s Migration Advisory Committee (‘MAC’) has recently published a major report (‘International students in the UK’). It confirmed that international students are of great value to the UK for many reasons. They are a crucial tool in contemporary knowledge diplomacy. They take UK connections, cultural understanding and trust back to their countries: many global leaders and influencers have had positive experiences of British learning. They also support and sustain courses across the country, and keep training opportunities open for local students. Furthermore, a strong international profile within educational institutions correlates to greater international collaboration and impact in research. Finally, the report confirms, international students have a net economic benefit to the UK, bringing in income and supporting jobs across the country. Total education exports are over £17.5bn per year – the country’s fifth largest services export sector. 

However, the report also found that the UK is losing share of the global mobile student market. International recruitment is more competitive, and students have more choice. Students from certain countries are choosing alternative study destinations. Worryingly, growth to the UK is much slower than growth to the majority of other host countries, leading to a relative decline in our position. Nevertheless, students continue to be included in the UK’s general net migration targets, and as such subject to policy restrictions that may not fully take their particular status into account.

Recent British Council research predicts that interest in international education will continue to grow for the next decade and beyond (albeit at a slowing rate). This growth, broadly speaking, should represent an opportunity: a chance to influence more of these young, talented, energetic individuals - who will be the political, business, and cultural leaders of the future - through international education: either through student mobility, and/or through ‘transnational education’ (i.e. the delivery of UK courses in another country). Yet the UK is in danger of resting on its laurels. 

Some competitor study destinations have ambitious targets to grow student intake – this gives a clear signal of intent to students and potential international partners. Many countries include streamlined visa policies and clear, accessible pathways for post study work opportunities

Many other countries take a contrasting approach to supporting international student mobility. They have devised clear, cohesive national strategies, in consultation with their education sectors. Some competitor study destinations have ambitious targets to grow student intake – this gives a clear signal of intent to students and potential international partners. Many countries include streamlined visa policies and clear, accessible pathways for post study work opportunities.

No other countries with ambitious international education strategies have domestic targets to reduce net migration, and other popular study destinations use different language to refer to international students (e.g. terms including ‘temporary entrants’ are used for those with student visas, rather than ‘migrants’).

The response to the publication of the MAC’s report was one of underwhelmed disappointment from the UK HE sector, business groups and some parliamentarians. In contrast, observers from competitor study destinations welcomed the report, with some even going on record to claim how the UK’s current approach to international students is worth around $500 million to Canadian universities.

The MAC report highlights some uncomfortable truths: it emphasises that “Migration policies do play a role in determining the decisions of international students about where to study, but the most important factors are a high-quality education and a welcoming environment.”

This can be seen in the recent experience of the USA: although the latest official figures show a growth of international students, the on-the-ground intelligence (from surveys conducted by the Institute of International Education) suggest that, when new numbers are reported in November, the international student population in US universities will have shrunk, with many prospective students citing the current U.S. social and political climate as a potential deterrent to U.S. study. In addition, the US doesn’t have an international education strategy, nor official targets for recruiting more students.

How to maintain our position

UK education is known to be of high quality. This is reflected by the number of international partnerships our universities develop, the satisfaction ratings of international students, the stories and achievements of alumni, and the position of UK universities in global rankings (including for academic reputation, employability, and teaching excellence).

Following the logic of the MAC report, the lack of growth of international students to the UK therefore seems to relate to visa regulations and/or perceived absence of a welcoming environment. The report recommends that “Government and the sector should continue to work together to grow the number of international students”. The UK would do well to learn from the success stories of others to realise this recommendation. Ways in which this could be done are various. The UK could continue to develop an international education strategy working across government and with the education sectors. In the environment where students have more and more choices, the UK should make it clear that it wants to attract more international students: instead of just ‘no cap’ it could have a positive target to aim for, and with it a signal to students around the world that the UK appreciates them being here. The UK can continue to support international collaborations in teaching and research, and support systems in other countries to do the same (through sharing our experience of quality assurance, data collection systems, and frameworks for recognising international qualifications). Finally, it is important to remember that student mobility is not just a one way street: the UK can provide further support and encouragement for the outward mobility of British students.

Building on the MAC’s report and going further, three things the UK might consider doing as soon as possible are changing how we refer to international students as ‘migrants’, both for the purposes of valuing these individuals and for the purposes of targeting numbers; considering more generous approaches to post-study visa regulations; and formulating a joined-up strategy between different the parts of Government and the education sector involved in the UK’s offer international students, including setting targets for the numbers the UK should be looking to attract. 

The latest evidence shows that the UK is in danger of losing its position as a global education super-power. But it also shows the enormous opportunities that are there for the taking if the UK can play to its huge strengths in this area. As the country looks to a global, post-Brexit future, this should be a major priority.

Jo Beall, British Council Director, Education and Society

See also