Higher education in the UK faces many challenges but one which has recently surfaced is its standing in the international market for students. From being one of, if not the, leading player in recruiting overseas students, the UK is beginning to slip down the international league table. In 2015 the Government announced plans to expand revenue from international HE in the UK and abroad to £30 billion by 2020, an increase of over 50% from the 2015 £19.3m baseline. However, uncertainty over Brexit and changes to immigration policies and processes have raised serious questions about this growth being achievable. In the meantime, Australia has overtaken Britain for its per-capita share of overseas students and other countries are expanding their own provision rapidly, while some traditional buoyant markets, such as India, are moving away from the UK altogether. The Higher Education Commission, a group of independent leaders from education, the business community and the three major political parties, have conducted an inquiry into the situation over the past year. Its newly-published report (Staying Ahead. Are International students doing down Under?, Policy Connect, September 2018) provides both a detailed analysis of the history and current context of international higher education in the UK and offers a series of possible solutions, suggested changes to the student visa system and its marketing and the expansion of trans-national provision.
There is, of course, another side to the story. Countries such as China, who have exported large numbers of students in the past, are increasing their own domestic provision while at the same time investing heavily in teaching and research. The 2019 World University Rankings has revealed a huge improvement in the standing of Chinese universities, with seven now in the top 50, and with Tsinghua replacing the National University of Singapore as the best-placed Asian university. How far this will affect the flow of students from China in the future is already a matter of widespread concern and discussion.
What is abundantly clear is that any diminution in the overseas market would have a serious impact on the economic situation of universities and colleges in this country. The continuing decline in the 18-year old cohort, which will continue for the next few years, requires compensatory increases in recruitment from other quarters, of which overseas students is the largest element. While much depends on government policy, even more depends on the ability of individual institutions to extend the search for new international markets. While UK universities have been assiduous in recruiting over many years, the challenge ahead is even greater and will require a step-change in marketing, recruitment and, above all, student support and provision. The reputation of Higher Education in the UK depends as much as anything on the student experience and there is some evidence that this has often been less satisfactory than it should for overseas students. Good marketing and recruitment practices must go hand-in-hand with the best quality student services and support.
The implication of this for HE workforce development is clear. There is a need for even more specialist international marketeers, especially in emerging markets, and professionals who understand how to deliver high quality services for a diverse international community of students. Recruiting such staff may even be a global exercise, just as much as the search for senior academic managers, and this in turn will depend on the willingness of government to be very flexible in its immigration policies. At the same time, we need to ensure that any future trade deals, on which so much emphasis has been placed during the recent debates over Brexit, gives the highest priority to trans-national higher education. After all, what more valuable export product does the UK produce nowadays than its education?
by Deian Hopkin