UK’s 600K overseas student target ‘still achievable’

New ‘international education champion’ predicts numbers will continue to grow despite Covid and Brexit, but modes of delivery will alter

November 10, 2020
crowds passing under an entrance sign reading " Come in We're (very) Open.
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The UK government’s target to grow international student enrolment to 600,000 is “still eminently achievable” despite the uncertainty and potential recruitment delays caused by the pandemic, according to the country’s first “international education champion”.

Sir Steve Smith, who took on the new position after retiring as vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter in September, said that while it was still unclear how Covid-19 would impact student flows in the short term, the current picture was more optimistic than some of the early projections and there was likely to be a “significant increase in international education” in the longer term.

“I think the 600,000 [target] for students coming to the UK is still eminently achievable,” he said. “In the next decade, I expect a lot more students will want to study abroad…and the way of delivering that will alter – that will be the difference…My judgement is in three, five, 10 years’ time students will want to study at top institutions.”

However, Sir Steve said that “the big question” was “how much of a delay does Covid put in that process”. The government’s target, which amounted to a 30 per cent increase on international student numbers when it was announced last year, is to achieve the growth by 2030.

The position of international education champion was announced last year as part of the UK government’s new international education strategy. The aim of the role is to boost overseas activity, promote new partnerships and develop tighter collaboration across government departments on international education policy.

Sir Steve predicted that international education, like domestic university teaching, would be “far more hybrid in the future” in terms of modes of delivery.

“The old model was either you come to the UK, or you have a branch campus. What I’ve noticed is a willingness to think about split models,” he said. “Do you do a year with a partner institution and then come to the UK? Do you do a year of remote learning then come to the UK?”

Sir Steve, who reports to both universities minister Michelle Donelan and exports minister Graham Stuart, added that “it would be a mistake not to see that there’s been a sea change in the image of the UK” following its decision to reintroduce two-year post-study work visas last year.

Former universities ministers Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore have both pushed for the UK to extend this visa to four years to remain competitive after Covid-19 and Brexit, and Sir Steve suggested that he would add his weight behind this call.

“There is no denying that we had a reputation of being unwelcoming…I have to say government has responded,” he said. “Would I like a four-year post-study visa? Yes, I would. And, in my position, I will try and expand the opportunities, subject to there not being abuse of the visa system in any way. I will try and do everything I can to push for greater flexibility on that as Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore have said.”

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