International diversity ‘declining on UK campuses’

Commission led by former universities minister calls for ‘internationalisation at home’ to be a central part of the UK’s next higher education strategy

October 24, 2023
A number of different national flags are displayed above a London street
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International diversity is declining on UK campuses due to the loss of incoming Erasmus+ exchange students, according to a new report.

The International Higher Education Commission (IHEC), which commissioned the report, warned of the “hollowing out” of international capacity and capability within the country.

Led by former universities minister Chris Skidmore, who published the International Higher Education Strategy, the IHEC has called for “internationalisation at home” to be a central part of the UK’s next higher education strategy.

Authors said the concept was a “vehicle through which students can learn about different cultures and gain more awareness of their own cultural make-up as a result”, without physically travelling abroad.

The group – which includes vice-chancellors from universities from across the UK and former ministers from across all parties – said it wanted to use internationalisation at home to extend the opportunities for international student mobility.

However, its analysis of various Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) data revealed that, despite the growth in overseas student numbers over the recent past, international diversity had been declining.

It found that the proportion of UK full-time first-degree students with study-abroad experience decreased from almost 6 per cent in 2015-16 to around 0.5 per cent in 2020-21, and that the proportion taking modern foreign languages was falling.

It also revealed that the number of incoming and visiting exchange students dipped significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the reduction in the number of European students on campus after the discontinuation of UK participation in Erasmus+ of particular concern.

The IHEC said this reduced the cultural and linguistic diversity on campus and therefore the number of opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges in both the formal and informal curricula.

The report did find a strong indication that providers were increasing the number of courses with international themes, with a continuous increase in home students accessing courses with globally focused dimensions.

Overall, however, the report warned of the “hollowing out of international capacity and capability on UK campuses”.

The report suggested that, if the UK was to sustain its world-class education system, then building capacity and capability in different areas of internationalisation at home were needed.

Mr Skidmore said the UK’s international education offer could not be only about attracting international students, but must look at how campuses and courses were more relevant and more purposeful to the modern international world.

“We need to ensure that campuses are international with attractive, international-based curriculums, exchange programmes and inclusive facilities that ensure international students want to study in the UK because we offer the best courses compared with competitor countries,” he added.

Anthony Manning, co-author of the report and dean for global and lifelong learning at the University of Kent, said that while international mobility was much heralded and measured, internationalisation at home was less well recognised and under-invested.

“[It] should be a key feature of the next iteration of the UK’s international education strategy as part of developing a unique national approach,” he said.

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