Higher education will be a central plank in the strategy for boosting the export industry of post-Brexit Britain, the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for International Trade, Mark Garnier, told the International Higher Education Forum in London.
The minister focused almost entirely on the growth of transnational education, or TNE, by UK universities, particularly in Asia, which he said had provided a British higher education experience to more than 300,000 people in 2014-15.
“Britain may be a small country, but our universities stand tall in the world,” said the minister, who predicted that the number of TNE students looks set to grow in the developing world “providing huge export opportunities for our top universities”.
Looking forward to the triggering of Article 50 on 29 March, which will start the process of Britain leaving the European Union, Garnier said: “Leaving the EU does not mean we are turning our back on the world.”
Speaking directly about European relations, he said: “They are our friends and allies and biggest trading partner and we want minimum disruption.”
But Brexit allows the UK to strike bilateral deals and trading arrangements with some of the fastest growing economies and sectors around the world and: “We want our universities to thrive as much overseas as they are doing in the UK.”
It was noticeable that the minister steered clear of mentioning visa restrictions or the inclusion of international students studying in Britain in the immigration figures, both of which are seen by universities as harming efforts to attract more foreign students to the UK.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which organised the conference, highlighted the government’s focus on seeing education as vital for trade in her opening remarks and wondered how some might see that. But she added that the UK could learn from the Australian experience.
Professor Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong in Australia, said education was now Australia’s third largest export industry – only surpassed by iron ore and coal.
International onshore student enrolments had climbed in recent years, he said, and now accounted for 8% of world market share, putting Australia behind only the United States, with 26%, and the UK, with 13%, of the study abroad student market.
Wellings said seven Australian universities now had more than 10,000 international students, with Melbourne having 18,300.
Australian universities have their own “sphere of influence”, with the country’s higher education sector taking 34% of international students from Singapore and 27% from Malaysia.
The market share from China was only 11% and from India it was 8%, but Wellings predicted the flow of Chinese and Indian students would grow as a result of changes in the US and UK.
“Free trade agreements had played an important part in putting Australia on the chart, with both bilateral and multinational agreements dealing with issues such an intellectual property.”
The first was struck with Singapore in 2003 with higher education and its quality assurance processes playing a key part.
Looking at relations with post-Brexit Britain, Wellings said if the two countries agreed to 'hold hands', it would be about developing research and development activities and bringing into alignment transfer agreements to aid student mobility.
Interest in UK branch campuses in the EU
A survey unveiled at the International Higher Education Forum by student recruitment and retention company, Hobsons, found potential international students attracted by the idea of studying at a UK university branch campus in Europe after Brexit.
Interest was highest among EU students, but they were less keen on staying in their own country to study at a British university campus.
“They still want to study abroad,” said Paul Raybould, director of digital marketing at Hobsons.
The survey was linked to research for the forthcoming International Student Survey conducted annually by Hobsons among prospective higher education students interested in studying abroad. The 2017 findings are due to be published in the week beginning 24 April.
Raybould said additional questions about UK university branch campuses in Europe were asked following a report in the Daily Telegraph that suggested the University of Oxford might be looking at opening a branch campus in the EU post-Brexit.
Raybould told University World News that despite Oxford denying the claim, it had sparked a high degree of interest and a number of UK universities have told Hobsons “this is something they are looking at as a potential response to Brexit”.
The results showed that 76% of EU respondents said they would be likely to study at an EU branch campus of a British university in a country other than their own. The figure fell to 58% when asked about studying at a branch campus in their own country.
This was higher than the number of prospective international students outside the EU, where 69% said they would be likely to choose to study at an EU outpost of a UK university.
Raybould said: “Although only about 200 of the respondents were from EU countries, the response does show that European students are openly positive about UK universities opening branch campuses in Europe.
“All the students asked the question had responded to the International Student Survey that they were interested in studying in the UK.”
Raybould said although it was still early days, “a few UK universities have spoken to us about the idea”.
He told University World News: “I don’t think anyone at this stage would invest money in it until there is more clarity, but a number of UK universities have told us it is something they are looking at as a potential response to Brexit.
“It is something on the radar of a lot of universities because it may be a really good way to continue securing EU funding and EU students.”
Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.
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