The UK higher education sector is at a confidence crossroads. Bravery and imagination are needed.
On one side, the UK Government has committed to increasing the number of overseas students and wants to reach a lofty target of 600,000 students by 2030 (currently it's around 475,000). This commitment comes with a budget for bodies such as the British Council to hard sell the UK as a study destination. We now have an "International Education Champion" in Sir Steve Smith, whose role will focus on priority markets such as India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Europe, China and Hong Kong.
On the other side, the UK is facing stiff competition from old rivals including America and Australia and new competitors such as Germany, Canada and New Zealand. Hitting an annual two per cent growth in the number of international students over the next eight years, in the face of increasing competition, is going to be tough. In this context, there is also a Brexit effect. The UK has left the Erasmus study exchange scheme after being a member since 1987. This will make studying in the UK more expensive and unattainable for many prospective European students who would previously have considered the UK as a study destination. The competition for non-EU international students is much tougher.
One in four countries around the world have a Head of State and/or a Head of Government educated in the UK. How will the UK continue to keep winning this high-stakes game? We do have quite a bit in our armoury. World leading universities? Tick. World class resources? Tick. Favourable visas for international students including the post study work visa? Tick.
For example, argues the Government, the new student immigration route announced in 2020 provides for "greater scope for international students to switch into other routes from inside the UK. The Graduate route, due to be launched in summer 2021, will allow eligible students to stay in the UK to work, or look for work, for two years (three years if studying at PhD level) after they have completed a degree in the UK. It is a world-class student immigration offer supporting our world-leading education sector."
However. International students regularly complain of being under-supported. They are not being sufficiently helped to become employable. For a large percentage, the experience of studying in the UK doesn’t match the dream they were sold because they face isolation, racism and the pressure of studying often in a foreign language. "In the past year, reports of harassment and hate crimes directed towards students have continued," notes the Office for Students annual review, adding that "rising ‘anti-Asian-looking’ sentiment has affected international students. The sector has shied away from conducting any meaningful research on this subject and this student experience provides an illustration of what it can be like.
The industry is also going through a tech revolution which has been accelerated by Covid-19. This digital transformation offers the sector a way to modernise what it offers international students and how it delivers that offer. Our work with Greenwich, where we provide a UK Survival Service, is a great example of how delivering digital solutions to problems can be done without losing the personal touch. The service was born out of listening to the problems international students face when it comes to moving to the UK, assimilating on and off campus and thriving academically. The service has been designed to feel like a local friend is helping the student from pre-arrival to graduation.
Ross Porter, head of international compliance and advice at Greenwich University, says that the service “has helped us to deliver a technological revolution in the way we prepare, welcome, and integrate our international students to life in the UK. By offering our students a free subscription through our online International Welcome programme, we have seen a 300% increase in student engagement which extends beyond the initial welcome programme. Greenwich University wanted a way in which to support our international students from pre-arrival to graduation whereby they can tap into support and information when they need it, and the UK Survival Service allows us to do this.”
Recent research by IDP Connect and Universities UK International (UUKi) show that the UK’s policy of remaining open to international students throughout the pandemic has led to increasingly positive sentiments towards the UK. The survey also found that the UK sector was at risk of students switching destination countries to gain more face-to-face teaching earlier – one third of respondents said that they would be likely to change destination if it enabled them to get face-to-face teaching earlier.
The UK is a world-class destination for international students. We have some great arrows in our quiver. But there’s so much more we must do.
How about this list for starters?
Deliver on these, and UK will certainly remain at the top of the pile!