Improving customer care for foreign students is next goal

Higher education experts urged the United Kingdom government to clarify its ambitions for the country’s international education strategy after overseas student recruitment soared in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2030 target of 600,000 international students was hit nearly a decade early.

Bobby Mehta, associate pro vice-chancellor for global engagement at the University of Portsmouth, told a special session at the International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) 2022 organised by Universities UK International that while the sector was celebrating achieving the target well ahead of schedule, it was time for the UK government to clarify whether it wanted to grow international student numbers further.

Mehta was in favour of revising the target upwards, but he also wants to look at the quality of the students being recruited, and work with agents, partners and pathway providers around the world to improve compliance and ensure the visa system works smoothly and that students enrolled at universities successfully complete the programmes they start.

“Once you have got the students here, you have got to be able to deliver and provide the classroom experience and student support – and now we’ve got the Graduate Route, which has made a fantastic impact, also fulfil the promise of employability,” he said.

Customer service is part of recovery

Mehta said: “Customer service is one of the things that has completely gone out of the window in the last 12 to 24 months; students are having time delays in application turn-around times and [we are] not responding to applicants in a timely way. It is down to the volume.

“If we are to retain the market we are seeing, customer service has to be a key part of the recovery.”

He wants the UK higher education sector to focus on diversity as well as quality and quantity of students in any review of the UK international education strategy – and that includes going beyond nationality to the subjects that students coming to the UK are studying, and the level of study.

“We want an undergraduate market, but is there really an [international] undergraduate market, or is it just postgraduate?” he asked.

Employers unsure about Graduate Route

Mehta also waded into the issue of the moment – employability – and said that when he spoke to international students, they said employers didn’t know enough about the Graduate Route and the implications. “Those employers who do understand are reluctant because it is only for two years. So, I think we need to work more with the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] and employers to educate them about the scheme.”

David Pilsbury, chief development officer with the Oxford International Education Group and former deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University, told #IHEF22 conference delegates not everyone wanted or could get work experience in the UK and that British universities should work more closely with employers in China and India, where the majority of international students are being recruited.

“The dynamic economies are in Asia and we need to ensure that international students who have been out of their countries for five years while their economies have been transformed are ready for re-entry into the workforces in those places. We should be working with employers in China and India about skilling and reskilling these kids.”

Pilsbury agreed with Mehta about investing more in customer care, in the health and well-being of international students, in recognising that their needs can be different from home students, “and that they are paying a lot of money”.

He said support for international students should start before they arrive in the UK, with pre-study induction programmes.

Spotlight on EU students

The session at the IHEF conference finished by asking whether the UK’s international education strategy needed re-orientating now that students from the European Union had to apply for visas to study in the UK and pay (higher) international tuition fees to study at British universities.

Numbers coming from the EU have collapsed as the full impact of Brexit is felt, as University World News has reported.

Dr Stephanie Harris, acting assistant director for policy and global engagement at Universities UK International, said: “We have got to figure out what the UK’s new European market for students is and look at what our competitors are doing and what we are not doing.”

She said it was vital that applicants understood the hurdles to coming to the UK to study and, equally, how to overcome them. She accepted that while there had been much discussion about this, there had not been much action.

Pilsbury urged the UK higher education sector to increase engagement with universities on the continent, saying it does not need to cost a lot and pointed to the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) programme that he introduced while at Coventry University.

“We used it to engage students and get them excited about going outbound.”

Turning such schemes around to get a lot of European students to come to the UK is the way forward, he suggested.

“But they don’t all want to come for three years or for a masters. Many just want to come for part of the year, so we need to be thinking differently.

“We’ve been consumed with COVID since Brexit happened. Where’s our post-Brexit strategy? I’ve not seen any institution articulate their position on how it is going to engage with Europe and now is the time to do that,” said Pilsbury.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.