Government acts to boost flagging international student recruitment

The UK government has set up a new agency to support the expansion of education exports – including international student recruitment.

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock announced on 23 January that Education UK will specifically target fast-growing markets such as India and the Middle East. He claimed that the UK has an excellent reputation for education internationally, but is not currently exploiting it to the full.

“We are in a global race and other countries are presenting attractive and coordinated offers, so Education UK is a vital step in bringing together the UK sector to drive its international engagement, particularly on high-value opportunities,” Hancock said while on a visit to India.

The new agency will have 10 people and is a joint initiative between the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which is responsible for universities, and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), which works with UK-based businesses to ensure their success in international markets.

Student recruitment from India and Pakistan has dropped dramatically, according to the most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and higher education leaders have warned the government that it risks sending mixed messages to potential students as a result of the impact on international students of its clampdown on bogus visas.

Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller, research-intensive universities, said after the announcement: “Following the recent 24% drop in Indian student applications we welcome this initiative to promote UK education in India and the Middle East.

“The UK’s excellent education system is clearly in a strong position to capitalise on the increasing demand for high quality education. UKTI’s investment shows that the UK is open for business and reinforces the message that there is no cap on the number of legitimate students.

“However, we need more joined-up government. UKTI on the one hand is promoting UK education whilst at the same time the Home Office and UK Border Agency are restricting access. The government’s ambition to limit net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ is in clear conflict with the wish to expand the UK’s share of the international student market.

“The government must remove international students from UK net migration figures, and only include those that stay after study, in order to achieve its ambitions.

“This team should focus on a proactive publicity campaign to combat growing fears that the UK is not welcoming to international students. They should also help students navigate the student visa process which could present a potential barrier for some students."

BIS ministers believe the UK’s education sector has the potential to make a significant contribution to growth; education exports are currently worth more than £14 billion (US$22 billion) a year, potentially rising to £21.5 billion by 2020, and to £27 billion by 2025.

Education UK’s activity will centre on:
  • • Researching, identifying and helping to develop trading opportunities for UK exports.
  • • Supporting UK providers to respond effectively to targeted international opportunities, by fostering the development of UK consortia for specific opportunities and helping them to prepare and promote bids.
  • • Ensuring that large-scale, complex commercial opportunities, which the UK is not currently well equipped to respond to, are effectively pursued so UK organisations win the business.
The British Council, which has managed the Education UK information portal since 2005, welcomed the announcement.

Dr Jo Beall, the council’s director of education and society, said: “The new unit's work to increase large-scale overseas education opportunities for the UK complements the British Council's work to advance cultural relations through internationalising higher education...

“As we develop the brand together we will explore ways in which the mark ‘Education UK’ may be used more widely as a quality endorsement marking, available to other UK education providers and organisations.”

The British Council says it will consult with the higher education sector to protect and enhance the value and impact of the “international student-facing Education UK brand” and together with the unit will solicit advice on market segmentation from specialist consultants.

The drop in the number of students from India and Pakistan for the first time last year was widely predicted. Numbers from India fell by 23.5% compared with 2010-11 and from Pakistan by 13.4%, the official Higher Education Statistics Agency reported this month. There were almost 10,000 fewer Indian students in the UK in 2011-12 compared to the previous year.

But the 1994 Group also voiced concern over a 20% fall in applications from European Union (EU) students.

Speaking as speculation mounted that Prime Minister David Cameron would announce a referendum on UK membership of the EU, Bols said: "Deterring outstanding European students will inevitably have an impact on the intellectual and cultural diversity of our campuses and our economy.

"We must not forget that the UK does half of its trade with Europe, and so attracting EU students to our universities plays a key role in building those crucial long-term trading links upon which the UK relies."