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July 2019

How can universities and Government work together to maximise the huge potential benefits available from international education? A recent policy round table in Paris co-hosted by the British Council revealed French and European efforts in this area. 

In the past ten years, the number of internationally mobile HE students has risen from two million to over five million. This is partially because many more students can now afford to be internationally mobile in a way that just decades ago would have been unthinkable. However, the British Council’s recent Shape of Global Higher Education report suggested that long-terms strategies of ‘education internationalisation’ were also real factors behind this rise in international student numbers. 

In the past ten years, the number of internationally mobile HE students has risen from two million to over five million

‘Internationalisation’ is an ambition shared by universities and governments in many countries. Individual institutions and national governments see great potential in internationalising their campuses, and are developing international frameworks. Student mobility is just one part of this. ‘Internationalisation of higher education’ also covers areas such as international research partnerships, overseas campuses, and digital degrees. There are important opportunities here for the UK, but also increasing competition that should be better understood.

On 21 June, the British Council partnered with PSL University in Paris to hold a dialogue on the internationalisation of universities, attended by senior government and education representatives from France, the UK, and other European countries. Participants discussed these topics from a European perspective. 

France and the UK: Policy differences?

In France as in the UK, the efforts of higher education institutions are supported by national strategies. Bienvenue en France: Choose France (published in November 2018), like the UK’s International Education Strategy and UK International Research and Innovation Strategy (published between March and May this year), link higher education with foreign policy. 

Internationalisation of higher education is also central to the European Union; Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 are the two main funding programmes for student and researcher exchange and cooperation. Up to two million students are expected to have taken part in Erasmus+ schemes by 2020, whilst over 20,380 joint research proposals were funded by Horizon 2020 from 2014-2018. 

The UK and France are the big European hitters when it comes to international education. The UK is in the top two in the world (with the USA) in terms of its numbers of international students, hosting around 460,000 overseas students in 2017/18, with China, India, and the US the top sending nations. France, meanwhile, has around 343,000 foreign students, making it (by most measures) the fourth largest host in the world and the largest non-English speaking host country. 

At face value, there seem to be many similarities between their recent higher education policy drives. Both set targets for incoming international students, the UK aiming for 600,000 by 2030, while France wants 500,000 students by 2027. They promise large funds for research partnerships – the UK has pledged to invest 2.4%of GDP in research and development by 2027, and France has established new programme funding. Both are also considering reforms to their visa systems for foreign students, potentially adding more generous post-study work options. 

Yet the strategies lay bare the difference between the wider foreign policy ambitions of France and the UK – particularly regarding the EU.

France’s targets are notably more ambitious than the UK’s – for example, an increase to half a million foreign students by 2027 would be double the current number

France’s foreign policy is about shaping European partnerships. President Macron himself proposed the European Universities Network in 2017, promising EU funding to pan-European institutional collaborations. Its first tender was announced on Wednesday 26 June; French universities had more applications approved than any other country – sixteen compared with just three from the UK. France’s ambitions are also global. At this year’s G7 summit its government assembled informal higher education ‘engagement groups’ – leading universities and research partners from around the world. Its strategy states that the number of scholarships for overseas students will be tripled and the government will fund two-thirds of the fees of students from non-EU countries. But overall France’s targets are notably more ambitious than the UK’s – for example, an increase to half a million foreign students by 2027 would be double the current number. The UK’s 600,000 target is a comparatively modest 30% rise. 

The UK government’s education ambitions, by contrast, aim to tie in with its post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy strategy. This was summarised by Minister for Universities and Research Chris Skidmore at the British Council’s Going Global conference in May this year. On the one hand, ‘irrespective of the outcome of EU exit negotiations, the UK and European countries should continue to give young people and students the chance to benefit from each other’s world leading universities’. Continued participation in EU funding programmes such as Erasmus+ is still the favoured option for both UK institutions and the government. However, the minister also said that ‘a wide range of options’ will be explored as alternatives to membership in EU programmes like Erasmus+, and the aim is to also look beyond Europe.

France and the UK have a strong bilateral tradition of collaboration. France hosts the highest number of outwardly mobile students from the UK in Europe, while the UK is the second most popular European destination for French students. While institutions from both countries welcomed any governmental support for internationalisation, they raised concerns about whether these differing foreign policy objectives – particularly around the European Union – could detrimentally affect future Franco-British education partnerships. Universities and researchers are urging their governments and the EU to work together to find the best solution for education and research collaboration post-Brexit.

International strategies and opportunities? 

Both the UK and French university sectors were pleased that their governments consulted them in writing international education strategies. They also welcomed promises that implementation will be ‘sector-led’. At the same time, as institutional and government strategies become interlinked, there are calls from all sides for more scrutiny and a renewed focus on priorities. There are also many questions which arise: are there ethical implications to governments shaping university activity? What effect will this have on university independence and autonomy? And does internationalisation really create benefits for anyone other than the countries, institutions, and social classes forming and driving these strategies?

There are concerns about ‘priority countries’ in the governments’ strategies which may have questionable human rights or intellectual property records. Universities must increasingly balance meeting government priorities (and accessing the associated financial support) with due diligence when forming partnerships with these countries’ institutions. Equally, some raised concerns that research funding may be channelled into a small number of government priority areas, leaving others neglected.

International students at higher education institutions in the UK generate more than £25 billion for the economy, support 206,600 jobs, and spend £5.4 billion off-campus on goods and services. There is also a soft power benefit to collaborating internationally

The Shape of Global Higher Education report shows that different elements of international HE are interconnected: countries which recruit a higher proportion of international students also produce a greater proportion of collaborative research (which is of higher quality and has greater impact). Furthermore, there is a correlation between incoming international students and economic growth; and hosts of international students gain long-term connections with often influential alumni. International students at higher education institutions in the UK generate more than £25 billion for the economy, support 206,600 jobs, and spend £5.4 billion off-campus on goods and services. There is also a soft power benefit to collaborating internationally. Those that have studied in the UK are more likely to trust the UK and do business with UK organisations in the future. These are attractive to Government as much as to HE institutions; in the UK’s recent strategy, for example, a stated aim is ‘to increase education exports [from the UK] by £35 billion by 2030’ (coming from all sectors, not just Higher Education).

As for the benefits to those countries sending students, the UUKi publication “International Graduate Outcomes” highlights the benefits to the individual of international study (greater employment opportunities, career progression, and earnings), and many of these benefits will also impact positively on the home country of the graduates. International students can be valuable ambassadors for their home country, and the multilateral links strengthened through mobility benefit all countries concerned.

Yet it is crucial to ensure that the benefits of internationalisation are accessible not just to a small portion of society. Whilst the number of internationally mobile students has increased sharply in the last decade, only around 2% of HE students worldwide are degree mobile. Institutions in the UK are taking steps to address this and internationalise much more of their student experience, including through ‘internationalisation at home’ initiatives, and by offering a greater number of short term international experiences – visits and placements of 1-2 weeks can be accessible to a much wider group of students and can have transformational effects.

League tables such as Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings include ‘international outlook’ as worth 7.5% of a university’s ranking. Internationalisation increasingly dominates the shape of global higher education, and universities are recognising the need to renew their focus on sharing ideas and creating opportunities all round. 

Ellie Buchdahl, Senior EU Region Comms Manager, Arts, Education & Society, British Council

See also