As the new Education UK Alumni Awards launch this week to celebrate the achievements of international graduates of UK universities, the British Council's Kirsty Pelenur explains why international students are good for the UK and why its universities must continue to cultivate the relationships they are building.
The UK must work harder to attract international students
In 2012–13, the UK hosted 425,000 international students, putting the UK only slightly behind the US as the study destination of choice for all international students. However, this picture is changing. The UK has seen a considerable drop in the number of international students, especially from key markets such as India, which has historically always had strong ties with universities in the UK. Once, a UK education was an unquestioned decision for those fortunate enough to have the means or opportunity to study abroad. Now, students want reassurance that choosing the UK over other countries is the right long-term decision.
For the UK, the economic benefits are clear
International students are hugely valuable to the UK. In purely economic terms, they brought an estimated annual income of £14 billion in 2008/09, £8 billion of which went directly into the higher education sector. These economic benefits are also likely to extend after the students graduate.
However, the real value to the UK is so much greater than a cash injection to the economy. And that value continues and multiplies as these students graduate, enter employment and develop a wide range of career paths. As alumni, the ways in which they benefit the UK and UK higher education institutions are as varied and diverse as the alumni themselves.
International alumni may donate time, expertise and funds to their alma maters
In 2013, it was reported that the US recorded $316.23 billion in charitable donations, 16 per cent of which went to education institutions, with 80 per cent of high net worth households giving to education. With such figures, it’s no surprise that UK universities are increasingly looking to their alumni for philanthropy. In the UK, higher education fundraising reached £560 million in 2010-11, with the largest percentage of gifts coming from alumni. They are, however, not yet at the point of giving the most significant gifts, which still come from non-alumni sources. These differences can’t be overlooked and are likely attributed to the lack of ‘asking’, or, in some cases, a lack of international alumni strategies.
Despite this, if we are to re-establish the strong bond that the UK has with UK alumni and encourage future generations to choose the UK as a study destination, it is extremely important that we move beyond the direct economic contribution that UK alumni can offer. Most UK universities are now not only measuring the donations, but also the gifts of time and loyalty into student recruitment, mentoring and careers programmes.
An international alumni network is not just valuable for universities, but the whole of the UK
People who have studied in the UK are more likely to maintain professional networks within the UK, keep active connections with fellow alumni and their institution, and to return to visit the UK. Universities work hard to keep these connections fresh by holding interesting events for their alumni and encouraging international networks.
UK alumni tend to have a great deal of goodwill towards the UK and the university where they studied. When they go home, they have extremely positive memories and perceptions of their time studying in the UK, and over 95 per cent of them would recommend to others to study in the UK. These informal but enormously valuable connections and recommendations help the UK build trust and cultural influence.
Countries that send students abroad benefit too
The 2013 BIS report shows evidence that the long-term ambition of most alumni is to return home following their stint in the UK, and have an impact in their home country. This contradicts the idea that international education plays a role in what is referred to as ‘brain drain’ or key talent not returning to the sending country. Instead, research suggests that there is an increasing trend towards a new term, ‘brain circulation’, in which graduates will have many international experiences in the course of their careers, creating ongoing benefits to the sending country and the individual.
The benefits for alumni and sending country are intertwined. When UK alumni return home, they are doing so with knowledge and skills that are highly valuable to their home country, as well as their own individual careers. International employers value and reward a UK education. The value of the knowledge and skills they gain is reflected by better employment prospects, career promotions and salary increases, and the ability to change career direction as a result of their UK education.
Through the Education UK Alumni awards 2015, the British Council and the UK higher education sector will identify and celebrate the success of their UK international alumni. Apply now for the awards or read about ten global leaders who studied in the UK.