Image of a group of students
Not being left behind. Photo ©

Unsplash, under licence and adapted from the original.

May 2019

New research underlines the value of supporting engagement in international higher education, the opportunities presented by the increasing openness of policy environments in other countries – and a warning that the UK mustn’t be left behind. Michael Peak, Head of Higher Education Systems Research at the British Council, looks at the evidence and the implications for the UK’s education policy.

The Shape of Global Higher Education

This week sees the publication of the latest section of significant new research assessing international higher education (‘IHE’) across the world. ‘The shape of global higher education’ is a research series produced by the British Council starting in 2016.  The findings of the previous sections were the subject of much discussion at the recent Going Global conference in Berlin: the world’s premier HE leaders’ event, this month held in continental Europe for the first time and co-hosted by the British Council.  

The ground-breaking study now includes 52 countries, with comprehensive analysis of changes in national policies and regulations relating to higher education (HE) over the last few years. It focuses in particular on the HE policy environment across the UK’s closest competitors and collaborators, alongside an analysis of crucial information like international student flows, research output, and national spend on IHE promotion.  Taken together, the research reveals the value of a supportive national policy environment to enable and sustain international links in HE. 

Get the policy environment right and the students will be more likely to come, and this relates to higher GDP as well as more collaborative research with greater impact

Overall the study contributes to a greater understanding of the landscape for IHE, and allows us to track the evolution of the level of support for international engagement provided by national systems. The latest analysis confirms that there is a real benefit for countries to adopt and implement more open policies which support their HE institutions (HEIs) to engage with global partners. Some of this may sound obvious, but through this research there is now the evidence to support what many assumed was the case all along.

For instance, the analysis found that there is a strong positive relationship between the national level of support for inbound student mobility, and inbound student flows – i.e. countries with more supportive policies attract more students.

This is important because (as the analysis also found) there is a positive relationship between the inbound student mobility ratio and the wealth of a country (as measured by GDP per capita) - in other words, countries which attract more international students are more wealthy.

Graph showing the relationship between GDP per capita and inbound student mobility
The relationship between GDP per capita and inbound student mobility. Image  ©

British Council.

Furthermore, the research found that countries that attract more international students engage more in high quality international research; and countries with policies to support international research produce research which has more impact. So, get the policy environment right and the students will be more likely to come, and this relates to higher GDP as well as more collaborative research with greater impact.

Clear benefits, growing competition

It is impossible to ignore the fact that components of HE are becoming ever more international:

  • The number of long-term internationally mobile students continues to grow, and short-term mobility is rapidly increasing in popularity
  • An increasing number of academic researchers are mobile, and more and more research articles are produced through international collaboration
  • Furthermore, the challenges which academic research sets out to address are often challenges which cross national borders
  • A growing number of academic programmes are internationally mobile – delivered in countries other than where the awarding institution is based
  • More institutions are internationally mobile in the form of international branch campuses (such as Heriot Watt University’s campuses in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur) and international joint universities (including Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China; and the German Jordanian University).

This increased internationalization of higher education can have benefits, for individuals, for institutions, and for nations.  

There is an academic dividend for students, and those with the opportunity to undertake international education develop skills including their critical thinking and intercultural awareness; institutions can benefit from accessing a wider pool of talent, critical thought and innovative ideas; and nations gain from the international links, learning, trust, and influence that international education can support.  Many students today are future change makers - our international alumni are an important cultural asset, and it is vital to maintain the pipeline of future alumni. 

Therefore, it makes sense for countries to create environments which support such engagement in international HE.  Many countries are doing exactly this - and doing it with gusto.

In fact, since 2016 most countries included in our study have increased their national support for internationalisation of HE. Seven of the 11 European countries in the study, for example, have published international education strategies since 2015 – often these are accompanied by international student targets. 

Amongst the European countries studied, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Ireland in particular score highly in terms of openness: they have all recently published international education strategies, and all have dedicated bodies to implement their strategies. Countries like these with encouraging environments for international HE have clear, open policies which support student and researcher mobility, strong frameworks that ensure quality provision of HE at home and abroad, and processes to support recognition of foreign qualifications. They also take steps to ensure that the benefits of international education can be experienced by all. 

The overall assessment of the national support for international HE in the UK has actually dropped slightly

But the overall assessment of the national support for international HE in the UK has actually dropped slightly. The marginal decline can be attributed to indicators relating to quality assurance of UK courses delivered overseas. (Following the enactment of HERA, the Office for Students took responsibility for monitoring many areas of English HE, and this currently doesn’t include quality assurance of qualifications delivered outside the UK).

The publication in March 2019 of the UK’s International HE Strategy, together with the assurances regarding fee status of enrolling EU students for 2020/21, are both important and welcome outward signals that the UK values international education, but many uncertainties remain on the horizon for UK HE - the study would suggest that it is important for the UK to issue strong, clear signals of support for international engagement.

Although international higher education is not a zero sum game, the clamor for international talent is becoming more and more competitive. The increasing openness of the policy environments in key countries can be seen as an opportunity for the international ambitions of UK HE, but should also be seen as a warning that we mustn’t be left behind.   

A supportive policy environment, allied to the hard work and high standards of the UK HE sector, is crucial to ensure the sustained high quality and relevance of the UK on the international stage.

Michael Peake, Head of Higher Education Systems Research, British Council

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