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International gain

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Skidmore explores how UK universities can continue to attract rising numbers of international students

One of the highlights of my first tenure as universities and science minister was overseeing the publication of the UK’s first International Education Strategy.

As Brexit debates swirled around the higher education community in 2019, there was significant concern about the impact that leaving the European Union, alongside the ending of home fee status for EU students, would have on international student numbers. Faced with a sharp reduction in EU student applications, worries were voiced that the UK would struggle to make up any shortfall, leading to further financial struggles in the sector.

At the time when the strategy was published, its two headline target figures—to increase international student numbers to 600,000 and to grow the international education market to £35 billion—seemed overly ambitious, with few believing this might be possible given the potential for an exodus of European students.

Two years on, and with a once-in-a-century pandemic still raging globally, it is understandable that the higher education sector remains concerned about the short-term financial impact that Covid has heaped upon us, particularly for the international student market. As countries such as Australia and the US have shown, it is a market that can be particularly affected by national policy making decisions to restrict entry.

Having recently secured a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School myself, I now find myself too in the frustrating position of being unable to attend campus in person while the US travel ban continues, and will have to conduct my seminars virtually for now.

Drop in EU students

The ending of home fee status for EU students back in summer 2020 has also brought with it added turmoil for the sector. Ucas figures published this week, as students received their A-level and equivalent results, show that there has been a 56 per cent fall in students from the EU taking up places at UK universities—down from 22,430 in 2020 to 9,820 this year.

Still, in the longer term, there is much cause to hope that international student recruitment could help to secure universities’ finances, with this week’s figures showing a 9 per cent rise in the number of non-EU international students placed on courses starting this autumn. 

According to the most recent international student recruitment statistics for 2019-20—published by Higher Education Statistics Agency earlier this year—there was a record number of international students in the UK, with some 556,625 studying on our shores, a 12 per cent increase on the previous year.

Hesa data shows that Non-EU student recruitment increased by 17 per cent in 2019-20, with student applications from India up from 27,505 to 55,465— demonstrating the potential for Asian students to entirely make up the EU shortfall in future. And with the reintroduction of the two-year post study work VISA due to begin in 2022, this figure seems set only to continue northwards.

The recent update to the International Education Strategy published earlier this year sets out in detail what progress has been made since the launch of the strategy, but most of all it makes clear why a strategy is needed if we are to seek to enhance our global outreach and target new and emerging international education markets.

Maintaining quality at universities

The next task is to be bolder still—not only on future visa flexibility and reform that might also include how universities are held accountable as sponsors, seeking to reduce bureaucracy. We need to also have a clear strategy for how to deliver international student numbers at a capacity that is sustainable for universities, and does not dilute both the quality of the qualification that international students are taking, and the quality of the student experience that international students come to the UK for. In future, these students could become ambassadors for the UK globally: we have a duty of care to ensure they will go out singing the praises of the UK’s universities.

One way to achieve this is to grow the on-campus, embedded, foundation placement opportunities for international students, so they are able to study for a year in preparation for joining a full degree course. This not only helps to ensure that international students are ‘uni-ready’—enhancing their fluency in English, such courses significantly improve international student retention rates.

This has been the driving mission for the Oxford International Education Group. In their Dundee International College, for example, retention rates are 97 per cent—and there is a similar story at their De Montfort University (94 per cent) and the University of Bangor (91 per cent) colleges. For universities seeking to expand their international student intake, but who are unable to make the investment in additional staff or teaching facilities, the international college on campus offering foundation pathways could be the way forward.

If universities are to make up the shortfall for EU student numbers by enhancing their international student recruitment numbers, they should be wary of replacing an over dependence in one cohort with an equal dependency on another. It is concerning that the proportion of Chinese students is becoming increasingly concentrated at certain institutions, placing them at risk if student applications from one country were to suddenly end. Chinese students made up 80 per cent of non-EU international students at Russell Group universities in 2019-20, up from 71 per cent in 2017-18.

International destination of choice

The International Education Strategy I published sought above all to improve diversity in international education. The strategy was never about achieving the 600,000 target alone, or by any means possible, but by realising that the target would only be reached and above all be sustainable if universities sought to recruit students from a truly global talent base. 

What we need now is better pathways that link recruiters and organisations already on the ground across a wider network of potential countries, from south Asia to northern Africa, to assist universities realise that more diversity will equate to better future financial stability.

Global education has always been one of the UK’s best exports, something the sector and government are well aware of. Yet now is the moment to go further and embed the UK’s leading reputation as the international destination of choice when it comes to higher education.

Chris Skidmore MP is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and a two-time former universities and science minister