First UK ‘international education champion’ appointed

The United Kingdom government has announced that Professor Sir Steve Smith, the retiring University of Exeter vice-chancellor, has agreed to take up the new post of International Education Champion, which has been established to boost the numbers of international students in the UK.

The announcement was made by Universities Minister Michelle Donelan on Friday 5 June at the 2020 Going Global conference hosted by the British Council, which is being held via a series of online events this year to adhere to government restrictions on mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

The appointment of such a figure was first mooted in March 2019 when the British government announced its new International Education Strategy with the goal of increasing international student numbers by 30%, to 600,000 by 2030.

At the time University World News reported that the role would “spearhead activities overseas, open international opportunities, develop strong international partnerships in new and established markets and help tackle challenges and barriers”.

At the online event, Destination UK: Supporting international learners through coronavirus, the minister used her opening remarks, which were delayed half an hour because of technical hiccups, to say how ironic it is “that we are having to take such pains to stay away from one another when the British Council came into being to show people the importance of those relationships and coming together”.

Reaching out to the world

Donelan told her audience that the British Council was “launched at a time when the world was also in the grip of a terrible crisis. Back in 1934 as countries pulled away from one another in mistrust and self-interest, the British Council was brave enough to see that by reaching out, we would help one another to move forward and develop.”

She said everyone feels distanced right now, “but as a nation we want our doors to remain open”, particularly for the hundreds of thousands of young people who choose to study in the UK.

Donelan said Britain had a reputation “as a tolerant and inviting place” and that the British Council and UK universities “embody the spirit of cultural friendship and the global exchange of ideas that goes back through the centuries”.

However, as University World News reported on 22 May 2020, there are fears about the future of the British Council as the coronavirus health emergency has disrupted its operations worldwide, with the Public and Commercial Services Union warning that it has been “devasted by a huge drop in income” caused by the closure of its overseas schools during the pandemic.

While the minister avoided directly mentioning the financial crisis the British Council is facing, her warm words will have encouraged those fighting for its survival.

Turning to the importance of international students continuing to flock to “destination UK”, Donelan pledged that they would find “a home away from home here” and that UK national students also benefited from “culturally richer” international campuses.

“In short, the international student community is vital to Britain’s national interest, not just economically but because they are so very much a part of the fabric of this nation,” she said.

Higher education not immune from the hardship

Donelan said higher education had not been immune from the suffering and hardship caused worldwide by the coronavirus pandemic.

“But I want to stress how very proud I am of the response by the UK’s higher education sector to both help with the fight back against COVID-19 and also to ensure that students are supported while having access to flexible and high-quality online learning,” she said.

As to how Britain can reassure students and their families that the UK still offers “a safe and nurturing place to study”, the minister said: “The best way to reassure them is with the facts – and the fact is that throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK has continued to support international students. Let me be clear, those who planned to come here in the autumn can still do so.”

She specifically pointed to the new guidance issued by the Department for Education on reopening buildings and campuses to protect the health and wellbeing of students and staff and said she was proud of how institutions had gone “above and beyond to support their students”, citing Queen’s University Belfast for the way it had reached out to international students both on and off campus.

The Northern Ireland university had let students leave their accommodation contracts without losing out financially and had couriered belongings home at no charge, she said.

UK universities had created what she called “stimulating and engaging” online content and were developing combined approaches to make safety a priority in the new academic year, “meaning courses may be delivered partly by using innovative online provision and partly through traditional face-to-face means”.

Flexible immigration regulations

The UK government was also “working very hard to ensure that international students do not have to jump through hoops to come here and that immigration regulations are as flexible as they can be” and such measures would be kept under review for as long as needed, she said.

Donelan also wanted to make it “utterly clear” that international students who start courses in the UK this autumn will be able to benefit from the “new graduate route to enable international students who had been awarded their degree to stay and work here for up to two years”.

Champion role welcomed

The announcement of Sir Steve Smith’s appointment in the international education champion role, which includes “highlighting exporting opportunities for the sector” and addressing “challenges and barriers to growth”, was welcomed by many leading figures in British higher education.

The British Council tweeted that it was “the news we’ve been waiting for”, and Jo Johnson, former minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation and brother of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, called it a “great appointment”.

Tom Windle, head of international partnerships at the University of Surrey, tweeted: “A rare bit of good news for the sector … It’s taken UK govt a while to follow through on the strategy but this is the right man for the job.”

Brexit biggest concern for UK-German cooperation

Earlier in the conference session on Friday 5 June, Christian Müller, deputy secretary general at DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, said a failure of the UK and European Union to reach an agreement over Brexit could have more worrying implications for future Anglo-German academic cooperation than coming out of the pandemic crisis.

“The UK continues to be one of the top destinations for German students seeking scholarships to study abroad, so you don’t have to worry about that,” said Müller.

But most German students go abroad for shorter periods through student exchanges funded through the EU’s Erasmus+ programme.

“If we do not reach an agreement on full participation in the Erasmus+ programme and in the research funding schemes, that would be a big hit for our future cooperation and we are very much interested in finding solutions so that the bilateral and multilateral cooperation in academic exchange and scientific research can continue.”

Müller also predicted a big increase in transnational education activities as students consider whether to travel abroad to countries like Germany for a joint degree or stay in Kuala Lumpur, Mexico or wherever.

“We are already looking at digital scholarships for people who do not want to travel or stay abroad and we are discussing this with the ministries. This is a very big issue and we need to rephrase and reframe the question of the value of physical mobility,” he said.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.