The UK must act now to preserve its reputation internationally

The figures show that the UK is slowly losing its appeal to overseas students, but what can be done about it? asks Vivienne Stern

Vivienne Stern's avatar
13 September 2021
International students generate billions of pounds for the British economy so the nation must act to preserve its reputation overseas
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New analysis of the economic impact of international students in the UK showed that the net impact of just one cohort of international students, 2018-19, was worth nearly £26 billion to the UK economy. This was up 19 per cent since similar analysis was last conducted, in relation to the 2015-16 cohort.

The striking thing about the research, carried out by London Economics for Universities UK International (UUKi) and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), is the fact that every single parliamentary constituency in the UK benefits from the economic boost – on average by £390 per person – delivered by international students.

The report makes for particularly happy reading because it comes at a time when the UK is firmly back in business when it comes to international student choice – after a long period of depressing arguments with successive governments that seemed hell-bent on putting them off. Policy changes, most notably the reintroduction of post-study work rights for international graduates, have had an immediate impact on the popularity of the UK.

So, you might wonder why, in the same week, UUKi put out another bit of analysis with the deliberately petulant title Why Aren’t We Second? Part 2. Well, this is a thread that we at UUKi have been pulling away at for some time.

While the UK remains, narrowly, the second most-popular destination overall for international students, we have lost ground to other destinations in 16 of the world’s top 21 source countries for international students, based on the latest available figures. The UK is the top destination in just five of those countries, compared with seven in 2010. We’re only the fourth most-popular destination in India and Bangladesh, where in 2010 we were second and first, respectively. We’re seventh in Nepal, eighth in Brazil and 12th in Ukraine.

In some cases, the reasons are pretty obvious. Language, cultural and historical ties and geography explain a lot. But not all the patterns can be so easily dismissed.

The question we have been asking ourselves is: why are we less popular in some of the major sending countries, and is there anything we can do about it? The question seems particularly important in places where the UK used to be very attractive but seems to be losing that appeal – especially in a period when many universities are trying to diversify their international student body.

During the long argument with the UK’s Home Office about visas, we neglected to mention that our declining popularity wasn’t all its fault. In fact, we had been quietly exploring some other underlying trends that, now that the visa issues are largely resolved, we need to give more attention.

Some of the underlying factors are likely to become increasingly important, such as the growth in the number of countries attracting large numbers of international students and the growth in intra-regional mobility.

Nonetheless, Why Aren’t We Second? Part 2 points to several issues that we really could do something about: doing a better job of promoting the UK as a study destination through national marketing campaigns; raising awareness of the scholarships on offer from the government and universities; and strategic investment in English-language training.

The UK is a high-cost destination, and we are not apologetic about that. Quality is the most important factor attracting students to the UK, and the investment that international students bring into the sector directly and significantly contributes to the outstanding education our universities offer.

However, the perception that the UK is prohibitively expensive, and that unlike the US we don’t offer much in the way of scholarships, is hurting us. We need to think about whether there is anything we can do, not only about the perception that we are unaffordable, but the reality that, for many international students, we’re simply out of their price range.

That’s why we need to start thinking about whether there are innovative finance mechanisms we could develop to help students take up UK higher education, without relying on eye-wateringly expensive commercial loans. We can also expand the reach of UK transnational education so that students who can’t afford to come to us for a full degree might be able to spend a bit of time here on programmes developed in partnership with counterparts around the world. There is an access and equity argument for having a frank think about this – and I don’t think it has to conflict with continuing to attract international students to the UK.

I’m pretty confident that the UK could meet and exceed the government’s target of attracting at least 600,000 international students to the UK by 2030. As Gavan Conlon of London Economics has said, achieving this would add another £10 billion to the economic contribution that international students make to the UK economy. Approximately £4 billion of that would be ultimately accrued by the government in additional taxation receipts, which is about one-third of the amount the government’s proposed increase in National Insurance would deliver. But we won’t necessarily achieve it if we are complacent.

The benefits that international students bring are serious – especially given current economic strains. We need to be equally serious, granular and intelligent about how we go about preserving and improving our appeal to such students in the future.

Vivienne Stern is the director of Universities UK International (UUKi), which represents UK universities around the world and works to enable them to flourish internationally. She will chair a webinar discussing the Why Aren’t We Second?” report on 23 September, which you can register for here.

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