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UK’s updated International Education Strategy commits to growth targets and post-pandemic recovery

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  • The UK’s updated International Education Strategy commits to previously established goals for foreign enrolment growth
  • It emphasises several areas as important for achieving those targets, including work opportunities and immigration routes for students
  • Expanding and improving digital and hybrid models of learning as well as transnational education is also a priority, as is developing new source markets for students
  • Millions of pounds have already been allocated for the recovery of the international education sector post-COVID and for supporting international students facing pandemic-related hardship

Despite all of the disruptions arising from the pandemic, the number of foreign students in UK universities grew by 12% last year and surpassed a total enrolment of 500,000 for the first time ever. As a sign of its commitment to maintaining this growth trajectory, the UK government has released an update to its International Education Strategy, which was originally launched in 2019.

The update reaffirms the government’s goals of increasing the value of UK education exports to £35 billion (US$48 billion) and to hosting at least 600,000 international students per year by 2030. Some of the ways in which this growth is to be pursued include:

  • Providing clearer, more accessible information for international students interested in studying and working in the UK;
  • Establishing new free trade agreements (FTAs) and promoting UK education through them;
  • Identifying priority source countries and developing close partnerships with governments and institutions in them;
  • Raising international students’ awareness of financial aid/scholarships;
  • Improving the experience of international students, including employment outcomes;
  • Expanding transnational education exports, including online and blended learning models;
  • Engaging international alumni more in outreach.

The update also recognises the challenges that have arisen as a result of COVID and charts a path to recovery for the sector.

Minimising disruption

Already, government-funded pandemic relief has included the allocation of millions of British pounds to support domestic and international students experiencing financial hardship due to COVID. Last December, £20 million was directed to higher education providers to distribute to students in need, and this funding was topped up last week with another £50 million. The government notes that this £70 million is in addition to “£256m of government-funded student premium which universities can use for student support this academic year.”

Throughout 2020, the government introduced flexibility in student visa processes to help international students affected by COVID travel restrictions to begin or continue their studies in the UK with as little disruption as possible and to remain eligible for post-study work opportunities.

Post-study work and settlement now a central strategy

Under the Theresa May government (2016–2019), the UK saw its international student numbers grow relatively slowly as a result of more restrictive policies aimed at reducing net migration to the country, policies that notably depressed demand from the key Indian market. Those policies have now been replaced by new immigration routes and work opportunities for foreign students, and the UK is once again projecting a welcoming image in key non-EU/EEA markets, including India. In fact, India was the big story in terms of 2019/20 growth, with Indian student numbers more than doubling from 27,505 in 2018/19 to 55,465 in 2019/20.

Expanded work and immigration opportunities are obviously working as a driver of international student demand for UK higher education, and the 2021 International Education Strategy update expresses a continued commitment to leveraging these advantages. Specifically:

Post-study work rights

Post-study work rights of two years for all international students and three years for PhD students (aka the “Graduate” route) will take effect this summer. Students affected by COVID study disruptions – e.g., who have been unable to travel to UK campuses or who have been forced to study online/through blended learning – will remain eligible for the Graduate route provided that they eventually “arrive in the UK to complete one term’s face-to-face learning.”

The student immigration route

A new “Student” immigration route has been established to make it easier for international students to apply to UK education institutions and is intended to create clearer pathways to immigration as well.

The Student route does not replace the Tier 4 route but rather builds on it through the following provisions:

  • Prospective students are permitted a longer window of time to make immigration applications from outside the UK;
  • Study time limits at the postgraduate level have been removed;
  • Students at all levels can apply for extensions and can move into another immigration route from within the UK.

Priority markets identified

As part of the 2019 International Education Strategy, the government appointed the country’s first-ever International Education Champion, Sir Steve Smith, whose role centres on promoting UK education overseas. In the 2021 strategy update, Mr Smith reiterates his focus on developing new markets for UK educators:

“Over the next few years, I will be working closely with the sector, government colleagues and the UK’s devolved administrations to showcase our first-in-class education offer to overseas partners, consumers, and investors. I will work closely with overseas governments and officials to deepen government-to-government partnerships, helping to open new international opportunities for the sector and working to resolve market access barriers in priority markets.”

Those markets are India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria, with Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Europe, China, and Hong Kong also spotlighted as priorities. The top ten non-EU senders for UK higher education currently include China, which remains by far the leading source market, along with India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Hong Kong.

Focus on online content delivery

COVID travel and safety restrictions have ushered in unprecedented innovation in digital education and in hybrid learning models. Even when the pandemic ends, institutions that can offer excellent content delivered online will have a distinct competitive advantage – especially in overseas markets. The 2021 update to the UK’s International Education Strategy acknowledges this and states that improving and expanding digital education capacity is now a priority.

More funding for outbound mobility

The strategy update places more emphasis on outbound study in the UK’s approach to internationalisation: the Turing Scheme is slated to begin in September 2021 and will support roughly 35,000 students in UK universities, colleges, and schools to go overseas for study. The strategy document likens the Turing Scheme to the Erasmus+ intra-European mobility scheme but says it goes further: it “will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but will be genuinely global and deliver enhanced value for money for taxpayers.”

A new qualification for teachers

Working with UK teacher-training providers, the government is introducing a new international teaching qualification: the iQTS (International Qualified Teacher Status), which “will provide an opportunity for teachers around the world to train to world-respected domestic standards.”

Expansion and diversification the central themes

The 2021 strategy update reflects the plain fact that the educational landscape – across the world, at every level of learning – has been completely changed by COVID. It is unlikely that students will ever again take in-person learning for granted or trust in the uninterrupted provision of it. They will look for a back-up plan (i.e., excellent online options) and for compelling models of hybrid learning. They will look for assurances that their educational, career, and immigration goals will not be derailed by another pandemic or other crisis.

Pre-COVID, British education institutions were able to compete for international students on the basis of their reputation for academic excellence and for what that meant for graduating students’ career prospects. They will need more than that now – as will every institution in every destination country – and the Strategy appears to have a clear grasp of the new and complex dynamics that will now characterise international students’ choice of programme and country.

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