With concerted efforts, the UK could attract far more than 600,000 international students to its shores, says James Pitman
In 2019, the UK government’s International Education Strategy set what was considered at the time to be an ambitious target: attracting 600,000 international students to the country by 2030.
This was billed as a 30 per cent increase. However, that now seems very wide of the mark. In the face of understandable distraction due to the Covid pandemic, it was easy to miss the recently published Universities UK international data records, which show that there were already 538,615 international students at UK universities in 2019.
But that’s not quite the whole picture either. English UK, which represents language schools, notes that in 2019 there were 508,614 international language students in the UK, across 1,839,655 student weeks. This translates into a full-time equivalent of 41,810 students across a 44-week academic year – or 35,377 FTE across 52 weeks. Meanwhile, the Independent Schools Council records 28,910 overseas pupils in UK independent schools in 2019.
If you add these students to the count, that already takes us over the 600,000 target. Including students at pathway and further education colleges would add tens of thousands more.
Why does this matter? Well, of course it’s good news for all of us who recognise the importance of UK international education to universities, as well as to the local communities who benefit from the presence of international students to the tune of £28.9 billion a year. Those overseas students who stay on in the UK after they graduate contribute even more, with many becoming entrepreneurs.
But what these figures signal about the opportunity for further expansion is also a matter of significant strategic national interest. After the wounds of Covid and the Brexit transition begin to heal, the UK will need a fresh offer to the world. Key industries, in which it has the resources to be a global leader, will be critical. Arguably, education – which benefits both local communities and the world at large – should be the top of that list.
The newly reintroduced Graduate Route will allow international students with UK degrees to stay and work here for two years post-degree – or three years post-PhD. But, as with all areas of opportunity, there is no place for complacency. Australia is reopening its borders after Covid lockdown and pursuing aggressive marketing strategies with highly attractive post-study work offers. It recently trumped the UK’s offer by extending post-study work rights for taught master’s students from two years to three, and is mulling offering graduate employment entitlements to offshore students. The US, Canada and many other countries in Europe also recognise the value that talented international students bring to their economies and workforces.
As someone who works in a global organisation, I have seen the highs and lows of international education policy across a range of countries. It is too easy to think the UK has now fixed this. International students have been caught up in an unpleasant immigration debate in the past, in which students and universities were frequently misrepresented. We need to guard against that in the future, cementing in the public and political psyche the crucial value of international students for wider national priorities, such as levelling up, job creation, innovation, course depth, diversity and driving prosperity for local communities.
Another thing we will need is real-time data to understand how we are doing and to ensure we make the most of the opportunities. It is concerning that, as we enter 2022, we have only just received the data for 2019 – which, of course, was before the pandemic wreaked such havoc in international education. Another key change over the intervening period was the policy decision to move European Union students into the “international students” category, including in terms of fees.
Determining even more ambitious recruitment targets that are challenging and reflect global circumstances should be a shared endeavour between higher education and government. I would be in favour of adopting a three-year planning horizon and reviewing that regularly to take into account both challenges and opportunities. Just as none of us anticipated Covid, we need to adjust as we go with real-time feedback. We can anticipate what choices international students will make in 2030, but only in broad terms. We need to constantly update that view and have the systems in place to facilitate that.
How the UK’s ambitions for international education should be implemented is a proper subject of concern, not only for the Department of Education but for the Department for International Trade, the Foreign Office and the Treasury, each of which harbours legitimate reasons to wish it well. We need total alignment across all government departments to ensure that the sector is ultra-responsive to the competitive environment; that still needs work as the UK shifts from a culture of restricting immigration to a more welcoming approach.
The international researchers attracted to the Jenner Labs at the University of Oxford drove the development of a world-changing vaccine. Further such international talent can be tapped if innovative UK universities drive a new era of online, hybrid and transnational education.
We should be ahead of other countries in policies that support international graduates to work, invest and start companies in the UK. We should aspire to be world leaders in listening to the student voice and innovating in real time on everything from virtual internships to tailored employability and well-being support.
This is one area in which the UK can genuinely be a global leader – but it won’t happen by rhetoric alone.
James Pitman is chair of Exporting Education UK and managing director at Study Group.