Report sets out strategies for building British share in international student markets

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • An industry commission in the UK has brought forward a number of recommendations designed to boost the attractiveness of British higher education for international students
  • The recommendations cover a number of issues relevant to international educators but most are grounded in improvements to British visa policy and related immigration processes

As soon as next year, Australia may host more international students in its universities than Britain, a development that would see the UK move from second to third place in terms of international enrolments in higher education. The UK has long held the #2 position, second only to the US, but its share of the global market has been slipping for several years even as other destinations such Australia and Canada have put together years of double-digit annual growth.

Within this context, an independent UK body known as the Higher Education Commission – composed of leaders from Britain’s education and business sectors – has released a report entitled Staying Ahead: Are International Students Going Down Under?. The report’s title is rhetorical; students are indeed gravitating to Australia at the same time as UK enrolments are stagnating – but the question is why, and what can be done to address the trend.

The report is based on the Higher Education Commission’s 10-month inquiry that gathered evidence and insights from stakeholders in the industry about what factors are leading students away from the UK – despite British universities’ continued prestige and reputation for excellence – and into the classrooms of competing destinations.

Staying Ahead was released just days after the release of a long-anticipated government commission report. International educators had hoped that the government report would provide solid direction for a return to growth, but the general consensus is that it represents a “missed opportunity” lacking in meaningful recommendations for strengthening Britain’s market share. By contrast, Staying Ahead advances a number of recommendations, all hinged on a position that the government must change its immigration policies if the UK is to attract international students at the same rate as countries such as Australia and Canada.

The British government’s goal is for international higher education to generate £30 billion for the country by 2020. The Staying Ahead report notes that meeting this goal will be “challenging” if the current policy climate persists.

Excellent universities, unwelcoming image

The Staying Ahead report emphasises that British universities continue to enjoy a prestigious reputation abroad and deliver world-class education. But this reputation is not enough in a global higher education marketplace where countries are increasingly competing on the basis of favourable visa, work, and immigration policies as well as on education quality. The report notes,

“Unfortunately, government policy has failed to exploit the opportunity offered by the quality of our universities. Our place in the global marketplace is currently very fragile, with intense competition providing globally mobile students with an abundance of choice. Changes in the UK visa regime have been particularly harmful in turning growth into stagnation.”

In particular, the report singles out the government’s years-long inclusion of international students in net migration reduction targets as a main culprit in Britain’s loss of market share, which has been particularly acute in the key market of India. The Higher Education Commission prefaces the entire report with this sentence, in bold, at the front of the document:

“The time feels right politically and in terms of the mood of the nation to remove students from migration numbers and simplify the visa process.”

Simply put, it has become more difficult for many international students to study in the UK at the same time as it has become easier for them to study in other countries. This reality – and the urgency of changing it – lies at the heart of many of the Staying Ahead report’s recommendations, some of which we will highlight below.

Make the UK welcoming again

Staying Ahead contrasts the UK’s policies regarding visas and work rights to Australia’s, and finds that Australia’s “ambitious student numbers target, streamlined visa policies, and accessible post-study work visas” are primary factors in the country’s recent successes at attracting international students. Australia is not the only country employing work and immigration policies to attract students; Canada, Ireland, Japan, and Germany have also become more competitive in recent years in part because of such policies.

As a result, one of the report’s most important recommendations is that “The Home Office should establish a ‘friendly environment policy’ for international students with improved post-study work options and streamlined visa processes to match our key competitors such as Australia.”

Calm Brexit jitters

The report urges the government to “immediately announce a continuation of home fee status for EU students in 2020 and beyond.” This recommendation is aimed at curbing EU students’ fears about any post-Brexit tuition implications. As of this writing, the British government has confirmed that EU students will continue to pay home fees (i.e., the same fees as British students pay) in August 2019 – the first intake after Brexit – but has not clarified what happens after that. The report notes that the delay in announcing home fees for EU students for subsequent years “could have a damaging effect on both university income and the viability of STEM postgraduate research courses, and the UK’s ability to access a share of EU research funding.”

Increase market diversification

The Higher Education Commission heard evidence that the current immigration and regulatory regime incentivises universities to recruit mainly from countries where students encountered the lowest visa refusal rates. This, in turn, has led to overreliance on certain markets, and underinvestment in markets with strong youth demographics that will affect student mobility flows for decades to come. The report recommends that government launch a pilot “based on recruiting from target countries on a new international student growth list, not on ‘zero visa refusal rates.’ Such countries would include Nigeria, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, and the Philippines.

Intensify campaigns signalling “open for business”

As Claire O’Leary of Warwick University told the Commission, student mistrust caused by the UK’s hard lines on immigration and work rights “are reported very negatively and loudly in global media and such reports cannot but help to contribute to perceptions of the UK as no longer welcoming.” The report advocates that a marketing campaign initiated in 2013, “Education is GREAT,” be intensified in order to “tackle damage done to the UK’s reputation as a HE destination, with supporting policies across other departments.”

Expand recruitment pipelines

New, credible English-language test centres across the world, more scholarships and pathway programmes aimed at target markets, and a visa policy that would encourage students studying in British TNE (transnational education) programmes abroad to come to the UK for further studies are all strategies put forward in the report.

Lay the foundation

In total, the Staying Ahead report outlines 12 recommendations to improve the UK’s competitive position, and we have highlighted some of the most important above. But the report insists that none of its recommended strategies will work if they are not underpinned by these essential steps:

“The UK should set a target for international student intake as other countries have done, and measure progress against the target. This will require the UK Government to develop a strategy to retain its fragile leading position on international student numbers.”

“Government should establish a cross-government programme board to oversee the development and implementation of a cross- departmental strategy on international HE in the UK and abroad.”

In essence, the Staying Ahead report argues that there must be a nationally coordinated international higher education strategy in the UK, one in which various governmental departments collaborate and work with individual institutions to amplify the British brand in global markets. Such national strategies are in place in the markets that have seen the most growth in international student enrolments in recent years: Australia and Canada.

“Most importantly, work needs to be done across Government departments to remove contradictory policies that encourage internationalisation with one hand and deter it with the other,” concludes the report. “In particular, the tug-of-war between the Department for Education and the Home Office must end. With greater departmental coordination, the UK’s international higher education industry can flourish.”

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