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May 2016

The global market for higher education is increasingly competitive. New insight suggests that national policies can make a huge difference to a country’s success in the field, and ultimately to its prosperity. UK policymakers should take note.

In the race for innovation and prosperity, higher education is an increasingly competitive arena. There is hardly a country in the world unaffected by the global flows of students, teaching, and research. More and more countries are recognising the benefits available from the internationalisation of education, and its implications for their economies’ competitiveness and productivity. They are also increasingly realising the difference that supportive national policies can make in fostering innovation and growth. 

International education brings £17.5 billion into the country every year

This is important for the UK. International education brings £17.5 billion into the country every year. The education sector is the second largest global market, growing at 7% per year. It is the UK’s fifth biggest service export sector. The UK currently ranks number two globally in terms of student destinations, has a number of top ranking universities, and recently overtook the US to rank top for global research citations. It is also recognised as a policy leader in the field. Yet it will have to fight ever harder to maintain its position as other countries develop and internationalise. 

This raises the question of what national policies should be adopted. To address this the British Council has published ‘The Shape of Global Higher Education’. The report was launched at ‘Going Global’ - its annual conference for higher education leaders. The aim is to help identify best practice for British universities and policymakers, to encourage internationalisation and cooperation as being in the mutual interests of all involved, and to help position the UK as at the centre of the growing international education network. Alongside the report the British Council launched the ‘Global Gauge’ , an on-line tool for comparing different countries’ higher education policies across a wide spectrum of measures. The report and the gauge identify the national policies and regulatory frameworks most conducive for international collaboration, research, and partnerships. 

The internationalisation of contemporary higher education is not just a question of student mobility. It also concerns the mobility of teachers, research, and qualifications, as well as visa policies, quality assurance, and transnational degrees (where the learners are located in a different country from the one where the awarding institution is based). To do their best in an increasingly competitive market, institutions and governments must consider all these aspects of their higher education offer as a whole. 

This multi-faceted issue demands a multi-faceted analysis. The increasing popularity of international university league tables based largely on research indicators – and their influence on governments eager for their countries to perform well in those tables – has led to growing support for international research collaborations and related funding frameworks. This is welcome, but is by no means the only factor that matters. 

The advantage of the gauge is that it allows users to analyse and rank the relative openness and effectiveness of different countries’ higher education policies across a range of non-commensurable factors. The two countries in the study deemed to have the best balance and mix of policies are Germany and Malaysia. But together the gauge and the report show that more and more governments are pursuing co-ordinated international higher education strategies. 

Gauging countries’ strengths

The Gauge shows that the UK does extremely well in some areas, such as quality assurance and regulatory provision. But it is less effective in others. The numbers of students from the UK studying abroad is low, for example, with the UK ranking 67th for outward student mobility according to the OECD, suggesting that many may be missing out on the benefits of studying abroad.

In general, international student mobility is shown to be broadly supported by strong funding and student-friendly visa policies in most of the countries examined. Twenty three out of the twenty six countries in the gauge had student mobility targets. However, some of those countries have gone further (notably Australia, Germany, and Russia), allowing their international graduates open access to the local labour market. Similarly Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands (not countries examined in the report) have even adopted a policies of opening their labour markets to international graduates from respected universities overseas. Such policies are likely to become more common as the competition for global talent becomes ever more intense. 

It is one thing for a country to signal an intent to be internationally relevant (through publication of an ‘international strategy’ and stated student recruitment targets etc.), but the Gauge also considers whether there is the necessary ‘infrastructure’ in place to recognise and quality assure international activities. In this regard, the international readiness of quality assurance systems emerges as one area of continued weakness for many countries. Another area requiring further development for many nations is the recognition of transnational degrees. At present very few countries have frameworks in place at a national level which recognise such degrees. 

The report also highlights the benefits of more coordination between different nations. This supports recent calls  for greater cooperation to counteract the unintended downsides of internationalisation, including displacement of local students and ‘brain drain’ of talented pupils away from countries with less well developed higher education capacity. 

Collaboration does not just change the fortunes of individuals and institutions, but supports the development of nations

Such collaboration is increasingly recognised as extremely valuable to those countries which allow it (for example, previous research shows that mobile researchers are the most productive researchers). Collaboration does not just change the fortunes of individuals and institutions, but supports the development of nations. There is much to learn from countries’ different approaches in tackling common issues. Partnership across national systems can benefit everyone involved. It is hoped that UK policymakers and higher education providers will use the tool to help them develop the UK’s offer and take up new international opportunities as other countries’ education systems continue to open up.

Overall, the importance of the increasing internationalisation of higher education should not be underestimated. Previous research by the British Council demonstrated the clear skills benefits arising from studying abroad. This new research offers a snapshot of how governments’ policies in other areas affecting international higher education can also lead to better grades, more frequently-cited research, better funding, greater innovation, and the attraction of more of the global talent needed to meet their industries’ specific needs. Ultimately, this can feed through into higher competitiveness, innovation, productivity, employment, trade, and economic growth. 

Michael Peak, Senior Advisor, Education Research, British Council

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