International higher education is a vital component of cultural relations.

It contributes to the UK’s influence and attraction globally (UK soft power) as well as our economy.

In order to maintain our strong position in a rapidly changing space, it is crucial to understand it, map it, and track shifts in policy and student flows. 

Michael Peak and John McNamara reflect on the British Council’s record of predicting the changes of the last fifteen years and consider what we have learnt for developing our new models of student recruitment which will be released this summer.

UK higher education (HE) is international. 

Around a third of all teaching and research staff in UK universities are non-UK nationals, one in every five students is from outside the UK and close to 700,000 additional students study UK degrees outside the UK. 

Almost all universities engage in teaching partnerships with international partners, and over half of all research published by UK institutions is co-authored by researchers based in other countries.

Universities, through their staff, students and researchers, connect the UK to the world, and the world to the UK.

The UK’s (current and future) place in the world is strengthened by its HE assets, and by the mobility of students.

A country which is perceived to have world-leading universities has a powerful lever of soft power.

This is an area where the UK is in a strong position relative to its comparators. It is currently the most attractive and the second most trusted country in the G20, according to the British Council’s most recent soft power perceptions survey, conducted this year.

As an attractive study destination, and as a country with world leading universities and academic research, the UK still scores strongly.  However, on perceptions as a country at the cutting edge of science and technology, the UK has been overtaken. 

The lived experience of studying in the UK has a transformative impact on young people’s perceptions. On average people who have studied in the UK are + 16 per cent more positive about the country across twenty soft power qualities.

Higher education and mobility of staff and students to the UK are integral to the UK’s current and future place and voice in the world, and for these reasons that British Council has been mapping and tracking international HE trends for over 15 years.

Leading the way in forecasting demand and mapping change 

The education sector suffers more than many from lack of internationally comparable data, which has inhibited the production of robust forecasts and has overall resulted in a dearth of activity in this space. 

The British Council has been central to addressing this challenge, having produced several pioneering studies looking at the future of international mobility.

Given the critical juncture we have reached because of COVID-19, it is timely to reflect on what we’ve learned about forecasting student mobility, and to consider how we may recalibrate our models and thinking to reflect the new reality. This is all with a view to supporting the HE sector to navigate through these uncertain times.

In 2004 the British Council partnered with IDP to produce Vision 2020 – forecasts of student mobility to the UK from the major sending countries. Looking back, it is striking how accurate the model was at forecasting global demand for international study, as presented in the chart below. 

Global demand for international study, 2004 

Graph indicating forecasts and actual figures of global demand for international study in millions of students from 2003 to 2020.
Forecasting global demand for international higher education. Image ©

British Council

This relatively simplistic model used GDP per capita as the sole driver of outbound mobility. It predicted that global demand for international study would continue along the existing trajectory of about 6 per cent growth per year, to increase from 2.1 million globally mobile students in 2003 to 5.4 million by 2018 – it ended up being 5.3 million.

In the world of forecasting, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The model selected Australia, Canada, New Zealand and US as the UK’s key comparator set countries and simply assumed that the market shares among these countries would remain static under the baseline scenario.

Looking at the forecasts of mobility from China and India to the UK, the story gets even more interesting. 

Back in 2004, the model made a bold projection that mobility from China to the UK would increase from 20,000 in 2003 to 131,000 by 2020. With actual mobility reaching 123,000 by 2018/19 academic year - and we know from 2019 visa issuance data that 2019/20 saw further robust recruitment from China – this forecast has been vindicated. 

In the long run, the forecast of mobility from India to the UK also worked out, even if the actual journey took the scenic route.

Though massively under forecasting mobility for the first decade, immigration policy changes in the UK between 2010 and 2012 had a depressing effect on recruitment from India which ended up bringing the forecast back into line.   

Ultimately, the forecast of 30,000 students from India by 2020 looks about right. 

In 2009, the British Council commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit to develop new forecasting models to 2015, and later worked with Oxford Economics to produce several forecasts from 2013 to 2018.

The models developed were more complex, including more factors and a greater number of competitor destination countries. However, these projections did not turn out to be quite so accurate as Vision 2020.  

Oxford Economics also contributed to the 2012 report ‘The shape of things to come’. Whilst being too conservative in forecasting growth from China and India, this study identified the top four sources of internationally mobile students, and high growth markets including Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. 

We also foresaw the rise in importance and increase in uptake of ‘transnational education’, and the global growth in collaboratively-authored research.

Before the Vision 2020 report, forecasts of international higher education shifts were hard to find. Of course, we haven’t been 100 per cent accurate with every prediction, but our studies have spotted many emerging trends. 

What can we learn from looking back at these forecasting models?

  • The policy environment has a major influence on student demand and international flows.

To keep track of this our ‘Global gauge of HE policy’ benchmarks policy environments across 50+ countries. 

Past declines in student flows to USA, Australia and the UK have all coincided with the introduction of more restrictive visa policies in each country. 

This highlights the importance of the new Graduate Route visa policy and forthcoming student route visa system which will make the UK more competitive.  

  • Student mobility is resilient.

It’s difficult to say yet what the modelling can tell us about the likely impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international student mobility.

Although the global repercussions of SARS in 2004 were not to the same scale as for COVID-19, SARS did negatively impact on mobility from China to the UK for several years, before bouncing back strongly.

We also know from the models that student mobility has proven surprisingly resilient to shocks, such as the global financial crises or commodity crashes.

In fact, in some cases, and for some groups of students, participation in HE increases at times of economic downturn as individuals see the slowdown in the job market as an opportunity to gain new qualifications.

At such uncertain times its crucial to capture student sentiment. We are continuing to track the perspectives of young people considering international study with additional surveys this summer, and we will use this data to inform some longer-term forecasting that we will share later this month.

We can’t afford to ignore the importance of IHE

Higher education provides a powerful tool which helps us to be globally connected and trusted around the world.

Many other countries recognise this, and prospective internationally mobile students have several quality study destinations from which to choose. 

In addition to the more established host nations such as USA, Australia, Germany and Canada, there are also traditional source countries of international students which are developing into attractive destinations including UAE, Malaysia, China and others. 

The recent news of additional short-term funding for Study UK promotion of UK HE this summer is welcome recognition of the need to support the sector in these challenging and competitive times.

Ultimately, international HE is about enriching the lives and opportunities of young people in the UK, and maintaining the UK’s position of influence and trust in the world.