By Jacqui Jenkins

16 July 2015 - 10:37

One in seven countries have a leader who has studied in the UK.
One in seven countries have a leader who has studied in the UK. Rouhani is one of them. Photo ©

World Economic Forum, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The UK's education sector, as an export, is worth a monthly £1.46 billion – much of which is contributed by higher education. Economics aside, higher education is a crucial asset in the UK's public diplomacy efforts, argues the British Council's Jacqui Jenkins.

What happens to international students when they come here?

We believe, and evidence suggests, that being exposed to the UK through its higher education makes it likelier that you will trust the UK. The British Council was set up as an institution in the belief that international dialogue and understanding create a better world.

Students get exposed to global ideas here. More than half of our full-time postgraduate students are from abroad. The UK higher education sector is completely international. Students come to the UK to better understand the world, not only us. The students make contacts from all over the world, and the UK is at the heart of these meetings.

How successful is the UK at attracting international students?

If we go back to 1973, there were 54,000 international students to the UK. Iran was one of the top sending countries in the early 1970s, and now it's China. In 2013/14, the UK hosted more than 430,000 international students, a growth of 800 per cent. What other sectors can say the same?

The UK is still number one for attracting new international students. This is no doubt down to its reputation, but also partly thanks to its one-year masters programmes. There are always some exceptions, like India, where numbers have gone down, because of perceptions of UK visa changes and the weak rupee, among other things. But overall, we're doing well, also considering that one in seven countries have a leader who has studied in the UK and hundreds of thousands of people study for UK qualifications overseas through what we call transnational education.

Why is Malaysia the number one UK transnational education provider?

Over the last 30 years, Malaysia has been very keen in adopting transnational education to improve its workforce. Apart from local students, Malaysia attracts students from other countries to its UK transnational education courses. We don't know the exact numbers, but we know that a lot of the 77,000 students who go to Malaysia to study for UK qualifications come from North African countries. It's maybe not as expensive as studying in the UK, and some students might prefer it because they share an Islamic culture. Obviously, the students are on a branch campus or studying at a partner institution, and you're hoping that their entire experience is a UK experience, which of course isn't possible. The knowledge they gain, however, will be in part provided by the UK university.

Can you put the international outlook of UK higher education institutions in context?

The UK is, without doubt, the most international provider of higher education. We have around 160 higher education institutions. Nearly all of them offer some form of transnational education to more than 360,000 students. Ten per cent of those institutions have campuses abroad. If you look at the US, they have 2,600 universities and nowhere near as many transnational education providers. Also, the UK has about 50 universities in the top rankings, which is a very high proportion and contributes to its attractiveness to international students.

Are student mobility and transnational education the only two factors contributing to the UK's internationalisation?

There are partnerships between researchers such as the Newton Fund. There are also partnerships at the teaching level - we just talked about transnational education. Very few partnerships are true strategic alliances like that between Monash and Warwick, whose academic vice-president, Andrew Coats, is a joint appointment. He's no more allied to one institution than the other. A 50-50 partnership like that is a real bonding.

More and more universities will tell you that they have 'so many MoUs' [MoU stands for 'memorandum of understanding', which is a written agreement setting out intentions of collaboration between two partner institutions], but they want to move away from signing MoUs with every university in the world and move to more strategic partnerships. Another example of that is the Worldwide Universities Network, a closed network of 19 universities with similar interests, values and outputs.

If you are in London, you can see our Going Global exhibition about the contribution of higher education to the UK's international standing. The exhibition closes on 28 August 2015.

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