When the International Education Strategy was launched in 2019 there were two headline commitments that stole the show: 1) to increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year and 2) to increase the number of international students hosted in the UK to 600,000. Both these goals were set to be achieved by 2030. One might have thought that with the ongoing implications of Covid-19, the initial strategy could now be viewed as over ambitious. However, the recent update of the strategy not only re-confirmed the timeline for these two commitments, but went further, in providing 15 key steps that the government will need to take in order to meet them.  We had a look at some of the underlying themes grounding these key steps, and the impact they may have on the sector.

Diversification of international student recruitment

The update to the International Education Strategy clearly outlines the need to diversify international student recruitment and identify new opportunities for HE providers to broaden the regions from which they tend to recruit. The demand for diversification generally makes a lot of sense right now when considering two elements of the global recruiting picture.

Firstly, there has been a clear upwards trend in the market share of globally mobile students pursuing tertiary education in non-OECD countries. In 2000, non-OECD countries commanded 24% of the international student market, whilst in 2018 this had risen to 30%. For the UK to successfully compete with up-and-coming nations (and the recent gains from other OECD countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Russia), it is essential to look beyond its traditional international student recruitment pools.

Secondly, post-Covid the UK will enter back in to a highly competitive market amongst its traditional competitors (US, Australia and Canada), with the US especially an ever more attractive option for international students under a Biden presidency committing to modernising the immigration system. Whilst these are of course early days, international applications to US colleges have already increased 9% from the same point last year.

The fact that the updated strategy highlights specific priority countries for growth opportunity is a positive sign that UK planning is heading in the right direction:

Action 1 (2021) The International Education Champion’s immediate priority countries are: India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria. These priorities reflect where there is significant potential for growth and where the Champion could both open up opportunities and address barriers to that potential. Other important regional markets for the International Education Champion will include Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Europe, China and Hong Kong

Enhancing the International Student Experience

Following the announcement of the International Education Strategy in 2019, there was some criticism that the ambitions to significantly grow the sector were not complemented with a clear vision of how to enhance the international student experience. In the recent update to the strategy this has been prioritised.

While the student route and post-study visas largely addresses issues around admissions and increasing employability prospects within the UK, it is the key actions that relate to the alternative finance sources and integration of international students that are perhaps most encouraging.

Action 4 (2021) Universities UK International will convene alternative finance providers, sector and student representatives together, in order to raise awareness of the financial options available to international students and how products could be improved to meet demand.

Action 5 (2021) The Office for Students together with the UK Council for International Student Affairs, will launch a new project that will aim to find ‘what works’ in ensuring international students can integrate and receive a fulfilling academic experience in the UK. It will explore the positive impact international students have on home students, and what longer term lessons can be learnt from their response to the coronavirus pandemic on provider-level delivery and student engagement.

With European students now due to pay the same amount in student fees as other international students, promoting existing sources of financial options and investigating the potential for new products is a much needed and timely addition to the strategy. Equally, meaningful integration of international students with the wider student body has long been a focus for universities, who are likely to welcome its introduction on a national policy level.

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Building lasting global partnerships

The updated International Education Strategy also emphasises the need for the UK to establish and build sustainable global partnerships. In addition to the priority countries outlined in ‘action 1,’ the document outlines further opportunities for education exports in Europe, the Indo Pacific region, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Expanding global delivery of high quality, ‘UK-style’ teacher training is also specified as a key means for building partnerships and establishing growth in new markets. To facilitate this, the strategy proposes introducing a new International teaching qualification:

 Action 8 (2021) The Department for Education will work with teacher training providers to establish a new international teaching qualification, ‘International Qualified Teacher Status’, that will provide an opportunity for teachers around the world to train to world-respected domestic standards. As well as providing more opportunities for teacher training providers, this will support the spread of high-quality teaching, and provide further opportunities for the UK to build lasting and positive relationships around the world.

Whilst this proposal is still in its consultation stage, the qualification could represent a positive opportunity for universities who are looking to diversity their revenue streams following the significant financial impact of Covid-19.

The theme of building lasting global partnerships is also perhaps most strongly underpinned by the new ‘Turing scheme’ that will replace Erasmus+ from September 2021. The scheme will provide funding for 35,000 students to go on overseas placements, at arguably a much more cost-effective rate than under the Erasmus+ programme.

A promising future

The updated International Education Strategy presents reasons for both universities and international students to be hopeful. The two main objectives are now grounded by clear initiatives to better understand and support students, whilst universities now have stronger evidence to accompany ambitious sector growth targets. Although previous immigration policy, Brexit and the cost of tuition have raised serious questions for international students planning to study in the UK over the last few years, the updated strategy points to a more open and supportive environment in the near future.

Written by Dan Salamons, Senior Research Manager and higher education specialist

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