Is anyone listening? International HE is in a parlous state

At the end of November 2022, the ‘great and the good’ of United Kingdom international education met at an invitation-only, closed-shop event hosted by the British Council, at the five-star Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore and one can only hope they were aware of the increasingly precarious state of UK international education as they contemplated various worthy causes.

When it comes to outward mobility, transnational education and sustainability on which the majority of the agenda focused, all of which have their part to play, one cannot help thinking that, however worthy, none of these activities in fact pays the bills.

In short, outward mobility is a cost to the sector which is funded by the government through the Turing Scheme, with a budget of £110 million (US$135 million) for 2022-23, its funding confirmed until 2025. The Turing Scheme was brought in by the Conservative government, post-Brexit, to replace Erasmus+, and has a global focus, with an emphasis on students from unrepresented backgrounds.

Transnational education (TNE) is a growth area in which, to date, the UK has been dominant, but in truth TNE is very difficult to make money from. Franchise programmes, often managed and administered through faculty, yield little revenue for what is, in many cases, considerable effort. Overseas campus activities are expensive and, in the case of the University of Reading's foray into Malaysia, in no way guarantee streets paved with gold.

In addition, sustainability in many cases comes with initial costs, be it for solar panels or reworking existing less environmentally sustainable activities and infrastructure to set higher education on a carbon neutral path for the future.

Meanwhile, UK universities have, over the last three years, lost approximately a third of their domestic tuition funding due to inflation and in some cases there are real concerns as to whether or not the lights will remain on during this ‘winter of discontent’ without growing numbers of inbound international students who subsidise their domestic peers.

Contrary to comments by Robert Halfon MP, international students enable more UK students to go to UK universities, not fewer.

Immigration policy

Whilst glasses were raised and Going Global delegates were all smiles in the warmer climes of Singapore, back in Blighty the press was full of doomsday stories regarding immigration targets missed, cancelling of dependant visas, caps on international student numbers and universities losing international students to sponsored care jobs as the recession bites.

Let us hope it was not a case of ostriches with their heads in the sand.

Moreover, since it looks increasingly likely that the Home Secretary Suella Braverman will ensure that postgraduate taught students are no longer eligible for dependant visas in the New Year, this may prevent or curtail growth in postgraduate numbers, particularly from Africa and South Asia.

This would not be such an issue if recruitment from China rebounded strongly, but it looks as if recovery may take time and there are strong indications that Chinese students are looking closer to home in Asia and Australasia for their tertiary education.

At the same time, horror stories persist that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is considering only allowing the UK’s ‘top universities’ to recruit international students. One has to ask how the government will define ‘top’ – arbitrarily, through the tried and tested but ultimately flawed university rankings?

In truth, as university rankings are yet to include any measure of student employability for either domestic or international students, they remain fundamentally flawed, particularly considering the government is looking to enhance employment and a skilled workforce. Any international cap, particularly on a number of universities languishing at the base of the rankings, could in fact be catastrophic and could force a number of universities to go to the wall.

The prospect of a university folding would do untold damage not only to the local and regional economy in which it is located. Universities employ thousands of individuals at all levels and not just academics. They range from cleaners to caterers, estates management to finance personnel.

The impact on employment should a university close its doors would be counter in many cases to the levelling-up agenda on which the government seems particularly keen in advance of the next election.

In addition to economic impact, think of the effect on thousands of domestic and international students presently in the midst of their degrees. Options to transfer to alternative universities would be limited on capacity grounds and any such closure would see irreparable damage to the global reputation of UK international education. If no university was deemed too big to fail, it would put the reputation of the whole UK sector at risk.

Employability back home

As we have said on numerous previous occasions, universities relying on post-study work rights means putting all their eggs in what was always a precarious basket at best and was in truth doomed to failure.

Far better would have been at the start of the pandemic for the powers that be within UK higher education, particularly those gathered in Singapore last month, to pivot towards a strategy focused on supporting international students’ transition to successful careers back in their home countries.

Luring international students to the UK on the false promise that the majority will become eligible for indefinite leave to remain is and always was an immigration con.

None of this should come as a surprise to the sector. The warning bells were ringing as soon as the reinstatement of post-study work visas was announced back in 2019, and whilst – with the rest of the world closed during the pandemic – the UK achieved 600,000 inbound international students almost 10 years ahead of schedule, the climate is now looking very different.

As snow now blankets the UK, public transport is crippled due to the weather and strike action and the cost-of-living crisis bites, UK politicians will no doubt fall back on populist anti-immigration rhetoric. Despite the latest protestations of new Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, international students and universities are in no way at the top of the government’s Christmas list.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.