Call for government-led international education strategy

More can and should be done to uphold the international competitiveness of United Kingdom higher education, according to a new report from Universities UK International (UUKi).

This should include “better post-study work opportunities; best and more comprehensive promotion of the UK as a study destination; better understanding of the factors affecting demand, particularly at postgraduate level; and a better understanding of the links between TNE [transnational education] and onshore recruitment and of the opportunities provided by TNE to diversify the reach of UK higher education in geographical terms”, the report concludes.

The author of the report, Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, says in her conclusion that in addition to continued efforts by individual institutions a “united front for their international endeavours is needed”.

“This unity requires alignment among key higher education stakeholders: individual higher education institutions, national agencies and government departments. In this the UK can learn from the strategic approaches taken by some of its major competitors.

“The global appeal of UK higher education is a national asset. Preserving and building on it should be a national priority,” the report says.

Director of UUKi Vivienne Stern said: “The facts in this report are enlightening and indicate the need for a government-led international education strategy that can help the sector create an environment that attracts and retains talented international students.”

Affected by global trends

The report, Five Little-known Facts about International Student Mobility to the UK, notes that there are some significant global trends that are likely to affect the UK’s international higher education engagement and sets out some suggestions for priorities for the UK.

One key challenge is the degree of uncertainty surrounding government policies, which is likely to affect international students’ perceptions when considering some of the established English-speaking destination countries, the report says.

Three major considerations are the impact of Brexit and the changing fee status of European Union students in the UK on EU student demand for study in the UK; the impact of United States President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and potential changes to the US Optional Practical Training visa; and fluctuation in currency and commodity prices, particularly oil that, among other things, influences some major overseas government sources of investment in scholarships for international study.

There are signals that the travel ban imposed by the Trump administration is shifting perceptions of international students about their welcome in the US, with the most recent Open Doors data, released in November, for the academic year 2016-17, showing a decline of 10,000 international student entrants to the US, the first drop in the 13 years that this data has been collected. New enrolments at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels have declined, the report says.

By contrast, the Canadian Bureau for International Education reported a 119% growth in international students between 2010 and 2017, with growth estimated at 20% last year.

“Interest in Canada is expected to be further supported by the ‘Study and Stay’ policy, initially adopted by Nova Scotia, and shortly after, rolled out in a few more states,” the report says. “The programme targets students from China, India and the Philippines. ‘Study and Stay’ was reported to be an extension of the country’s Atlantic Immigration Pilot which allows international graduates across several Canadian states to settle permanently should they gain employment with designated employers.”

Postgraduate demand for UK higher education from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria has “significantly declined” in recent years, yet with China they are the countries with the largest projection in their outward mobility to 2027, according to a British Council report, International Student Mobility to 2027: Local investment, global outcomes.

“Re-engaging with international students and their families in these countries could reverse a downward trend in postgraduate enrolments and give self-funded demand a boost,” the UUKi report says. “Students from India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh are price-sensitive, and they are likely to respond positively to incentives linked to post-study work options that can help with loan repayments at home and give them an advantage in their domestic labour market.“

The report also suggests that pressure on public finances, some of which was linked to fluctuations in oil prices in particular, has affected large scholarship schemes in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Brazil and Iraq. “Even if economic circumstances change, there is evidence that many countries that have been traditional sources of overseas scholarship-funded students are now placing greater emphasis on the development of their own institutions,” the UUKi report says.

Leading provider of TNE

In some countries trying to develop domestic capacity, such as Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, policies aimed at luring overseas providers of transnational education (TNE) in specialist subjects could provide an opportunity for the UK “given its leading position as a provider of TNE”.

In other countries changes to the regulatory framework for TNE – becoming more liberal and supportive in some cases, more restrictive in others – affects UK expansion of TNE.

Nevertheless, the benefits to the UK, their partner institutions and local communities “significantly outweigh” the difficulties in the operating environment, the report says.

“In many countries TNE is the main means of engagement; in others, it taps into trends that are diverting students away from the UK. TNE is enabling UK higher education institutions to be locally embedded and to maintain the global relevance of their offer,” the report says.

The report reveals five facts about international students coming to the UK that it says have previously received very little attention:
  • • More than half of the UK’s international students are in their first year of study in this country. This means maintaining this population demands a lot of marketing effort. Therefore, the sector is vulnerable to geopolitical influences (for example, currency changes).

  • • The UK has the second highest number of MSc and PhD international students of any OECD country (after the US) but numbers have been static for some time. The US hosts 391,000 postgraduate students – twice as many as the UK. However, postgraduate degrees in the US are longer so more postgraduate students start their degrees in the UK each year than in the US.

  • • International students value opportunities to get work experience as part of their education. But the UK’s post-study work options are less clearly presented than its competitors and are more limited.

  • • International postgraduate research students help maintain the UK’s world-leading research outputs. Recently, there has been a decline in the number of newly enrolled international full-time postgraduate research students, which is a cause for concern. Communicating the UK’s commitment to research and international engagement is vital to attract international postgraduate researchers and their funders.

  • • More than 60% of all international students on UK higher education programmes are studying outside the UK through TNE, either via courses online or at overseas campuses. Economically, TNE can’t replace international students coming to the UK, as the impact on export earning is smaller. However, there’s a clear link between studying for a UK degree overseas and becoming an international student in the UK, UUKi’s report says.