Value of international students goes beyond money (though that can’t be ignored)

Initiatives by the mayor of London and the Department for International Trade are welcome as the UK HE sector seeks reassurance on Brexit, writes Sarah Stevens

October 13, 2017
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Brexit will present the UK with significant challenges. Boosting jobs at a time of uncertainty will require us to play to our strengths as a country and identify new opportunities for growth.

At this stage, we are still no closer to understanding what our future trading relationship with the European Union and other states will look like. What we do know is that education is a sector that has a crucial role to play in our future economic success.

Universities play a vital economic role in their local communities, employing thousands of people directly and supporting many more jobs across their regions. Their global links help to strengthen and support local prosperity, attracting inward investment and international talent.

The UK is already a world leader in exporting education overseas. Russell Group universities such as the University of Nottingham are among those that have established successful campuses abroad. Others are delivering joint degrees with overseas partners, or providing distance learning courses like those at the University of Liverpool. All this activity has meant that the number of students based overseas at Russell Group universities has risen by more than 70 per cent over the past five years.

Building on the progress that we have made on transnational education is hugely important. This applies to school curricula and technical education every bit as much as higher education. The announcement this week of new government initiatives to help the sector expand its work in overseas markets is a positive move.

International demand for UK education is strong – underpinned by our reputation for the highest quality provision. We need to make the most of the opportunities that are available to us.

However, we also need to recognise that working overseas is only part of the picture when it comes to education exports.

International students who come to the UK to study help universities to export knowledge and expertise across the world. They bring new ideas and new approaches with them, too, enriching the learning experience for all students and helping them to build the skills that they need to do business in a global setting.

The value of international students goes far beyond the financial, but their positive economic impact cannot be ignored. There are about 200,000 students from around the world studying at Russell Group universities. These women and men help to create a vibrant learning environment and add billions of pounds to the UK economy every year – spread across the regions and nations.

The prime minister and others have made clear that their vision is for a global Britain outside the European Union. Ensuring that we can continue to attract international students to the UK is fundamental to maintaining our position as a world leader in higher education.

The immigration plan set out by the mayor of London earlier this week included a number of measures that would help to ensure that we remain competitive in what is a global marketplace.

The benefits of improving the post-study work offer to potential applicants would extend far beyond London, and broader reforms to the non-EU visa system should help to ensure that we can continue to attract global talent to the UK. This is one of the points we will be making in our submission to the Migration Advisory Committee’s review of student immigration.

Work to explore global trade and investment opportunities should help universities to continue to grow their activities and ensure that HE forms a core part of future trade deals. The announcements from the Department for International Trade on education exports and the immigration policy paper from the mayor of London were both welcome contributions.

If we are to maximise the positive impact that universities have on the UK economy, transnational education and international student recruitment must not be an either/or choice. We need a clear strategy to support both.

Sarah Stevens is head of policy for the Russell Group.

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