UK competitiveness: What’s next for student recruitment?

British universities need to be more astute to rising “geopolitical competition” and take “a nuanced approach to navigating shifting regional sentiment” in East Asia as the region “moves indisputably into China’s orbit”, the 2023 International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) organised by Universities UK International was told.

Jazreel Goh, country director for Malaysia and leader of the British Council’s East Asia consulting team, told the forum: “Students are making decisions about where and whether to study overseas based on what they think the future will look like tomorrow and 30 years from now.”

She said that from a regional perspective, all roads were leading to Beijing – a challenge for British universities as the United Kingdom was increasingly standing on the opposite side of the road.

Goh, who led the UK’s largest education marketing and partnership initiatives in mainland China after joining the British Council in 2004, was speaking at the final session of IHEF, billed as “The UK’s competitiveness: what’s next for international student recruitment?”

Education as a bridge

She urged conference delegates “to fiercely protect UK education’s role as a bridge rather than another wedge in the political divide”, and said that after the COVID-19 pandemic there was a lot more competition for international students from the main English-speaking destinations of Australia, the United States and Canada.

“We are also seeing a shift to countries closer to home [like] Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and China where crucially they have high-quality local offers.”

Goh said student expectations are rising and when students enquire about courses and options overseas they expect a response measured in minutes and not days.

“When they get to the UK, they expect support not just for themselves but also for their dependants,” she said, and that includes funding and academic support “and when they graduate, they’re looking for support with career development”.

Goh predicted that the economic slowdown would lead to financial help overtaking all previous issues of concern, including rankings, and that employability and their prospects once they return home would become top priorities in choosing where to study.

Institutions need to invest more in alumni, careers and counselling services as well as engagement and connections with the local job market in the students’ countries of origin. They also need to develop teams on the ground “to monitor and do due diligence” and ensure they are doing both ethical recruitment and providing “pastoral care to help students be successful”, she said.

Family sacrifices

The conference heard from Professor Shitij Kapur, president and principal of King’s College London, who said the rapid increase in international tuition fees in the UK meant that as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) per person, overseas students coming from countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and China – and, importantly, their families – were investing the equivalent in a British context of £100,000 (US$120,000) a year for three years to study as undergraduates in the UK.

“I wanted to put that figure in your mind, to give a sense of what it means in relative terms for a family, in most of the countries from which our students come, to send one of their sons or daughters to study with us.

“It shows the tremendous amount of aspiration and ambition on the one side and also the tremendous amount of family sacrifice. Almost every student is coming here with the help of their family.”

To remain competitive, UK universities need to be sensitive to what is driving these students and while they may be attracted by the “high quality, history and reputation of Britain's higher education”, they are looking for a return on investment and “the ability to join the employability ladder, either here in the UK or back in their country of origin, or in some other country, which would be commensurate with the sacrifice that they’ve made”.

Asked whether this meant there should be targets for employability and achievement as well as enrolments in any future UK international education strategy, Kapur agreed that this went to the “heart of the matter” and said the current available data collected by leavers’ surveys didn’t give a clear picture of graduate outcomes for students returning home.

He also urged UK universities to invest, say 3% of international fees, in widening participation initiatives as the current intake of foreign students came from a “very narrow segment” of society.

Future employment

The UK government’s international education champion Sir Steve Smith also spoke at the IHEF session and cautioned his audience “to be enormously careful what you wish for”, having seen how graduate destination data had been used in the UK to measure the worth of education based on “the economic value” of this or that degree at different universities.

He suggested that institutions were putting much more effort into trying to think about the future prospects of students once they graduate, but he didn’t want future employment to be a target in the international education strategy.

He did, however, encourage universities to see their commitment to foreign students as extending beyond the one or three years they spend studying on their course and to see international education in broader terms than recruitment.

The session was opened with co-chair Professor Brad MacKay asking but not getting direct answers to whether the sector should sustain recent growth or look to “consolidate current numbers and focus on the student experience”?

MacKay, vice president for international strategy and external relations and senior vice principal at St Andrews University, Scotland, also highlighted some of the challenges, including “the political rhetoric around net migration and international students bringing dependants” and domestic students being replaced by international students; the post-18 demographic surge and shortages of accommodation, issues around study visas and cross-subsidisation of teaching and research with international fees.

‘Sensitive’ conversations

Smith avoided an invitation to comment publicly on the “political rhetoric and numerous challenges” surrounding international student recruitment to the UK, telling IHEF delegates: “We are at a very sensitive point in conversations and negotiations.”

Smith, a former vice-chancellor of Exeter University, was appointed as the UK government’s international education champion in June 2020 with the job of supporting the international education strategy (IES) and helping to meet its main targets of increasing international student numbers coming to the UK from 440,000 to at least 600,000, and raising the value of education exports from £19 billion (US$22.8 billion) to £35 billion (US$42 billion) by 2030.

Smith said the strategy and targets “remain government policy today”. While noting MacKay’s comments about “some of the challenges”, which University World News has regularly reported on after the UK exceeded the numerical target eight years ahead of schedule, with the number of overseas students in the UK reaching just under 680,000 last year, Smith added: “Some have commented [that] perhaps the target was too low.”

He said the strategy covered all areas of education, and not just higher education, and that the UK was generating £25.6 billion from education exports, with 76.3% of that total coming from higher education, according to the latest data.

UK transnational education was also booming, with the numbers of students participating up from 488,000 in 2019 to 532,000 in 2021-22.

Smith told the IHEF that it was “really important to point out that we are at a very sensitive point in conversations and negotiations” and that he was going to “focus on the future of the international education strategy rather than on government policy”.

He emphasised recent successes in diversifying the flow of students from abroad, with a 50% increase in Indian student numbers, a 107% increase in Nigerian students, 78% more from Pakistan, a 91% increase in students from Bangladesh, and the recent agreement on mutual recognition of academic qualifications between the UK and India.

But there were only a few hints on the future direction of the IES, apart from Smith hoping that “in the coming years we can also focus on new parts of the world” and mentioning Brazil, Mexico and Pakistan, but not the UK’s closest neighbours in the European Union, where there has been a dramatic decline in EU student interest in coming to the UK to study since the full implication of the Brexit withdrawal agreement came into effect in 2021.

Competition from Europe

Last word went to Piet van Hove, president of the European Association for International Education and senior policy advisor on internationalisation at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, who was attending the online IHEF conference while recovering from a bad cold.

“Not for the first time, I realise how different it is in the UK and continental Europe when it comes to higher education.”

He said while EU students were put off by the post-Brexit requirements for visas and the high level of international tuition fees now demanded to study in the UK, there is still resilience in demand to study at “world-class universities in the UK that are recognised as centres of excellence”.

However, he warned that competition was increasing for globally mobile students from continental European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, and now Portugal.

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