International students: UK must make hay while the sun shines

Champagne glasses were raised at the PIEoneer Awards in London’s Guildhall on 3 September, a sparkling event where many higher education colleagues were able to mingle face to face in the United Kingdom for the first time in almost two years. The event was directly followed by the release of the Universities UK International (UUKi) and IDP Connect paper, “International Student Recruitment: Why aren’t we second? Part 2”.

This was not meant to throw a damp blanket over the celebrations but was rather a dose of reality as hangovers subsided.

In truth, the reality is that the UK is probably already second, given that one of their main competitors, Australia, is on the ropes and the paper does not criticise a lack of ambition in the government’s plan to attract 600,000 international students by 2030.

It is time for the sector to be more ambitious and answer the question: How and where can we be first?

Despite the challenges of this year, UK higher education has emerged from the global pandemic largely unscathed in contrast to the competition. International student numbers were challenged in 2020-21, but applications and acceptance data from UCAS is hard proof that the UK in 2021 is an attractive and welcoming destination for international students.

Despite political tensions, the UK’s relationship with China seems to have weathered the storm, something which cannot be said for Australia, Canada or the United States.

The UK is the leading destination for Chinese students this year and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

An Education International Cooperation Group survey found, for the third consecutive year, that the UK achieved favoured status – something previously held by the United States. Nearly 30% of students preferred Britain, 24.5% favoured the US and 16.5% chose Australia, with Canada 15.8% coming in fourth.

There’s further good news for the UK, with applications from India up 13% and we see a significant jump in applications from emerging markets – for example, Nigeria is up 83% and Pakistan is up 53%.

When one considers deferrals from 2020-21 and record UK applications to university for this academic year, all in the garden looks rosy for UK institutions. Furthermore, when one looks at UK population data, the next nine years could see a record number of 18-year-olds looking to enter higher education.

There has, of course, been a dramatic fall of 57% in European Union enrolments in the UK following Brexit, due to the fact that EU students are now subject to international tuition fees. While reduced European numbers have hurt diversity and quality, we tend to concur with Nick Hillman at the Higher Education Policy Institute, who predicted way back in 2017 that Brexit would not be a disaster for UK universities.

Hillman suggested that, in the medium to long term, UK universities are likely to benefit from increased revenue from European students paying the same international fees as their non-EU compatriots.

Universities will need as much international fee income as they can get their hands on to smooth any bumps in the road caused by the possible and, in our view likely, implementation of the proposal from the Philip Augar review of tertiary education funding that domestic tuition fees should be reduced to £7,500 (US$10,400).

If this is the case, even if EU enrolment is reduced by 50%, EU students will be paying almost double the domestic tuition fees, which will compensate for the loss in numbers, if not diversity, on UK campuses.

Long-term challenges – and solutions

But the higher education sector would do well to heed the advice that first appeared in writing in John Heywood’s 1546 book on English proverbs – “make hay while the sun shines”.

By the time they get to 2030 the number of domestic 18-year-olds will begin to decline and, long before then, the Australians and New Zealanders will have fought back from their self-imposed exile. Anyone who remembers how the Aussies saw a decrease of more than 100,000 international enrolments from 2009 to 2012 won’t forget how they bounced back with an increase of 370,000 in the following seven years.

No doubt America will be back in the international game, having suffered from a declining domestic college-aged population and the hangover of the Donald Trump administration. We already see the beginnings of this. Kamala Harris’s recent trip to Southeast Asia indicates the pivotal role that the US sees ASEAN playing in future economic development and growth.

One can also not bet against Canada, whose proactive education policies linked to migration will play a key role in international student mobility for the foreseeable future.

So, with resurgent international student enrolments and a runway of nine years until the boom in 18-year-old home students falls away, what should the UK be doing to establish and maintain a strategic advantage?

First, we need robust, representative, time-series data on international student outcomes. Most students will still return to their home country after study and it is a shocking indictment that the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Jisc and the Office for Students have been unwilling or unable to collect appropriate records.

Most students taking advantage of post-study work opportunities in the UK will also return home and the UUKi and IDP Connect research shows that post-study work can advantage them as they build their careers. Unfortunately, at the present time there is a total lack of insight as to how it advantages them, with no data on career outcomes and progression or the return on investment of a UK degree over an international graduate’s lifetime.

Second, the government needs to encourage and support the sector in building its soft power overseas. Global Britain should not be about a defensive island nation but about a new type of worldwide superpower that is linked with business and politics through smart graduates who recognise the quality of education they received.

Data again is the key. Government and institutions need to fully understand the strength of the UK international alumni network and utilise its links with industry to drive inward investment and international trade. The UK’s head start in transnational education offers a massive advantage if it exploits it effectively.

Thirdly, we need to throw off constraints and minimalist thinking. Make the target 750,000 international students and introduce the sound and sensible measures proposed by UUKi and IDP Connect, but also bring together establishment doyens and a new breed of innovative thinkers and actors – “a brains trust” that understands what it takes to be internationally ambitious.

Brexit was meant to be about taking back control rather than ceding ground and our universities offer the opportunity to launch global activities from a position of authority and excellence.

The late American writer and humourist Lewis Grizzard is credited with popularising the phrase: “Unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” What the UK really needs to do is change the scenery through bold strategic action.

We should define metrics – the best graduate outcomes, the strongest transnational education, the fastest growth and others – which allow us to compare and benchmark our relative performance. But we should also strike out to be first in every market possible as well as at the top of comparable measures.

It is the first time in a decade that the UK has had this chance and the hay is there for the making.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.