Expert body to push for new international education strategy

Architects of the Conservative government’s successful international student mobility strategy, which saw the target of 600,000 overseas students at British universities met nearly a decade ahead of schedule, are attempting to seize the initiative again to prevent brakes being applied to further expansion of foreign student numbers.

Stunned by reports towards the end of last year that government leaders, and even new prime minister Rishi Sunak, were discussing a crackdown on foreign student visas to reduce net migration to the United Kingdom, a group of experts, including several former higher education ministers, launched a fightback to lay the foundations for a more sustainable international education strategy ahead of the next general election.

With the aim of creating a new narrative around international education by focusing on improving the quality of overseas students coming to the UK to study ¬– and the student experience – they have set up an independent cross-party International Higher Education Commission (IHEC) and the priority is clearly not just about boosting numbers.

Key amongst their goals is facing down critics of expanding international student mobility, such as the anti-immigration policy think tank Migration Watch, which claimed it was ‘absurd’ to reach the 600,000 overseas students target so early and the country was not prepared for such an influx or the strain it has put on housing, services and transport.

Tackling ‘false narratives’

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore, who served between 2018 and 2020 in Conservative administrations led by Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, is coordinating the initiative.

He says the IHEC will tackle what he calls “false narratives” around the impact of international students in the UK and help to move the debate on from simply talking about the economic value of foreign students, who pay much higher tuition fees to study at British universities than domestic students.

Skidmore was instrumental in launching the UK’s first international education strategy in 2019 and set its target of achieving £35 billion (US$43 billion) in education exports and attracting 600,000 foreign students to the UK by 2030, a figure already achieved, at least for student numbers, while competitor countries like Australia and New Zealand closed their borders to international students due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skidmore told University World News the commission will “highlight the detrimental loss that will occur if we don’t protect what we have spent so long building with the first UK international education strategy”.

Support from three former ministers

He is supported by two other former Conservative ministers of state for universities, science, research and innovation: Lord Jo Johnson and Lord David Willetts.

They were announced on 17 January 2023 as among the first IHEC commissioners, along with James Purnell, a former secretary of state for culture, media and sport and before that secretary of state for work and pensions in Gordon Brown’s Labour government.

Purnell is now vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, and his appointment is designed to demonstrate the cross-party support for a more sustainable international education strategy.

Lord Johnson told an online event hosted by the IHEC on 17 January that while the “basic policy architecture” is still in place for things like the post-study work visa, which allows international graduates to stay in the UK for two years after they leave university, “there is a weakening consensus in British politics about the benefits of international students in the UK”.

He said: “Political support is weaker than it was two or three years ago, and we need to understand why and what the sector needs to do to reinforce support for international students coming to the UK.”

Ironic that critics are from Thatcherite wing

Johnson said it was “ironic” that some of the loudest critics of international students are on the Thatcherite right wing of the Conservative Party because the success of the UK in international student mobility was thanks to a “great reform” by former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher when she removed the subsidy for international students and deregulated them and allowed universities to operate in a free market for international student recruitment.

“It is doubly ironic because international students are hugely supportive of the Conservative government’s two big policy ideas – Global Britain and Levelling-Up,” he said, pointing to the advantages of having people around the world in positions of leadership who can see the UK through the lens of having studied here.

Johnson blamed some of the “false narratives about international students crowding out domestic students” and depriving home students of study opportunities and accommodation on Theresa May who, during her spell as home secretary and later as prime minister, talked assertively about hundreds of thousands of foreign students overstaying their visas.

“Of course, that allegation was completely unfounded, with the data finally revealing that international students were the most compliant of visa categories. But it has stuck around and we need to be more robust and confident in challenging assertions like that or we will find the policy and political environment increasingly difficult,” warned Johnson.

He was backed by Dr David Pilsbury, chief development officer with the London-based Oxford International Education Group, which is supplying administrative and some funding support for the IHEC’s online events.

Pilsbury told University World News: “I passionately believe we need new thinking, new mechanisms of engagement and very specifically to engage with more diverse voices – that includes students – but just as importantly with those who do not believe the sector’s narrative about the benefits international students bring.”

TNE – An opportunity to change the discourse

While welcoming the new initiative, Dr Janet Ilieva, director of Education Insight and an expert on the UK’s international education strategy, told University World News the “most overlooked part of the current international strategy is international students’ graduate outcomes and transnational education (TNE) partnerships”.

“While maintaining a high market share of globally mobile students is important, it has to be alongside their graduate outcomes – completion rates, satisfaction with their studies and employability. There is an opportunity for the UK to change the discourse and shine a light on international students’ success,” she said.

Ilieva said any new strategy must face up to the notion that international student mobility fuels global inequity, particularly relevant to higher education’s contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“For decades, UK higher education institutions have successfully forged TNE partnerships and delivered education where the students are – irrespective of their geographical location.

“While TNE has remained largely invisible in the UK, it makes a huge contribution to building higher education capacity in host countries and plays a critical role in the UK’s knowledge diplomacy and global engagement.”

Catching up with the rest of the world

Ilieva also said the new commission should highlight that international student recruitment fell after Theresa May got rid of the post-study work visa arrangements and was flatlining until about 2018.

“The recent growth has been simply catching up with the rest of the world after the re-introduction of the post-study work route in 2021 which aligned the UK with other leading international study destinations such as Australia, the USA, Canada and most EU countries,” she said.

As for the hot potato of international students bringing family members or dependants with them, which University World News reported on recently, the UK allows only postgraduate students to do so and treats international students as immigrants.

The United States gives them international student status with a visa to temporarily study in the USA and they can bring dependants, said Ilieva, while “Australia goes further and gives international students a visa status of temporary resident with the right to bring dependants, and international students can work during study without any time limit while studying”.

Future policies

Skidmore told University World News: “The IHEC plans to produce a series of documents over the next year to push for particular policies that we’d like to see governments adopt for international students, as well as challenging some of the false narratives around this issue.”

He likened the project to work he is spearheading around Net Zero and told University World News he was facing similar critics and challenges and accepted it was vital that the commission engaged with its critics.

This means accepting the limitations of the first education strategy and producing fresh proposals for visa opportunities and improving the student experience by facing up to the challenges around housing and accommodation.

Skidmore said it would be marvellous if the current Conservative government was prepared to take forward the commission’s ideas. “However, recognising the politics of the situation and that we will be in a general election before too long, I am keen to ensure that we reach a range of audiences, including the political audiences, so that we can feed into the process of manifesto commitments for various political parties at an early stage.”

Asked why no international students have so far been appointed as IHEC commissioners, Skidmore said these would be announced at the next online session on 21 February at 2pm, which will be devoted to student representatives.

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