With the education market adding over £20 billion per year to the UK economy through education exports and transnational activity, the Government has made it a key priority to cement and grow Britain’s leading role in the global education market, especially in light of our awaited departure from the EU.
The higher education sector has welcomed such a target-based strategy and many hope that it marks a shift in direction from the Government, backed up by a commitment to a joined up approach across departments. However, there are concerns that the Home Office has not yet provided clear support on key immigration issues that underpin parts of the strategy. In particular, it is unclear how incoming students will be counted under Home Office immigration statistics and how this will impact the various policies which are intended to reduce yearly net migration.
In the following paragraphs we consider some of the key implications of the international strategy.
Overview of the strategy
The aim of the strategy is to accomplish two key goals:
- To raise the number of international students in UK universities to 600,000 per year
- To increase the amount of income generated by education exports to £35 billion (a rise of 75%)
- Both targets are highly ambitious and will require a significant increase in the current yearly growth rates to be met. With this in mind, the strategy includes a number of measures to help the sector maximise the potential of UK education exports abroad, including:
- Appointing a new International Education Champion to boost overseas activity by developing strong partnerships and tackling challenges to growth.
- Encouraging sector groups to bid into the £5 million GREAT Challenge Fund to promote the entire UK education offer internationally.
- Extending the period of post-study leave for international student visas, considering how the visa process could be improved for applicants and supporting student employment.
- Improving data on education exports to enhance and drive performance while also mapping out where the best opportunities lie globally.
- Closer working across government departments on international education policy and opportunities.
- Extending the post-study leave period to six months for undergraduate and masters students attending institutions with degree awarding powers, and a year for all doctoral students. The strategy also looks at ways of supporting international students into employment.
Picking up on a couple of these measures:
Extension of the available post-study work visa - to six months for those on bachelors and masters programs and a year for those doing a PhD. This should make it easier for students to arrange work in the UK as they will be permitted to apply for opportunities in the final three months of their study.
This will likely be attractive to many students, however it is not entirely clear whether it will be enough to fuel the level of growth in student numbers that the strategy envisions. Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, welcomed this proposal but emphasised that the government should go further by “extending the opportunity to at least two years”.
However, the commitment to consider how to improve the visa process for applicants is welcomed by the sector, especially if EU nationals are to fall within this system.
Appointing an International Education Champion - In a major step, a new International Education Champion will be appointed to co-ordinate government departments and to spearhead new partnerships – particularly in relation to four high value regions outside of Europe.
- China and Hong Kong
- The Middle East and North Africa
- Latin America
- The ASEAN group of nations
Various examples of government to government exchange are highlighted throughout the report as examples of how growth in these four regions can be fuelled. The notable example of the Thai government officially endorsing BTEC qualifications to be delivered in every vocational and higher institution in Thailand represents the kind of opportunity that this strategy intends to develop, with this large market becoming available to a specific UK education provider at the stroke of a pen.
The measures set out in the strategy provide a good starting point for the Government and the university sector to start talking about how to deliver these ambitious goals, but there is much work to do. Simplifying the fundamental architecture and complexity of the Tier 4 system and introducing a realistic post-work study scheme are likely to be top of the action list.
The changing demographics and increasing investment by the countries that used to send us students in their domestic education capacity is likely to force many UK universities to offer significant incentives that go beyond those offered by competitors internationally. For example, they may need to adopt sophisticated business tools, as well as continuing to provide partnerships of high academic standing in areas attractive to potential students and research collaborators.
One thing we are sure of is that the goals set out in the International Education Strategy will lead to many UK universities placing an increased emphasis on expanding their international partnerships both to attract international students to the UK and to support international students being taught in part or, increasingly, wholly in their home country. With this in mind, we have listed below a few top tips to consider when contemplating such collaborations.