The UK’s international education strategy needs more internationalisation

Efforts to accrue more overseas fees could be vetoed by the Home Office and will do little to make UK students more culturally savvy, warns Peter Brady 

May 21, 2019
Source: Alamy

In March, the UK government published a new International Education Strategy: the fifth in 25 years. The document – subtitled “global potential, global growth” – is so similar to the 2013 strategy – subtitled “global growth and prosperity” – as to make little difference.

A “champion for international education” is to be appointed, and a fairly modest target has been set for international students on campus to reach 600,000 by 2030 – compared with 377,000 in 2017-18. But there is no real change in what the government will do to help this happen. The document offers the same reassuring words as its predecessor about the UK being welcoming and there being no limit on student visas – but student numbers remain in the net migration figures.

A bonus for international recruiters is a version of post-study work, but it is nowhere near as attractive as the old post-study work visa or the offerings of the UK’s competitors. And how it will operate will be determined by the Home Office, whose priority is to keep net migration down.

As a tacit acknowledgement that increasing on-campus student numbers will remain challenging, there are three action points specifically on transnational education.

The first is typical of a government document failing to be a strategy: “The Department for Education and Department for International Trade will work with the higher education sector and the British Council to identify more accurately the overall value of TNE to the UK economy.” No doubt this will be followed by a paper that gives a “more accurate” – in other words much larger – guesstimate of that value. Perhaps they hope that this could “prove” that the economic contribution from TNE is bigger than that from international students within the UK; then the DfE and the Home Office could join hands and only allow the “best of the best” into the country. This is wishful thinking.

But the real failure of this strategy, like its predecessors, is its lack of any ambition on the internationalisation of UK students. Set in the context of education’s contribution to the government’s overall exports strategy, it is all about increasing university income from overseas students. Of course, nice things are said about outward mobility. The government will “continue to support” the campaign to double outbound numbers by 2020. That sounds impressive, but even if it is achieved, it will only mean that 13 per cent of UK undergraduates will spend some period of study abroad.

The biggest contributor to those outward mobility numbers is Erasmus and we don’t know what will happen with that post-Brexit. The government is “open to exploring” ongoing participation, but few will find that reassuring given the feverish state of British politics.

The existing Erasmus figures given in the strategy document put outward mobility from the UK to the EU at 100,000 and inward mobility at 130,000. This means that a new Erasmus could contribute 30,000 to net migration. That will not be acceptable if the government’s pledge to keep immigration down to the tens of thousands remains – especially if the Home Office notices that the outbound figure is calculated over two years and inbound figure over only one!

Equally, while mass recruitment of international students brings in funding, it is not necessarily conducive to internationalisation. You only have to look at UK business schools with more than 50 per cent Chinese students on their programmes to see that. The government needs to develop a properly funded strategy for internationalisation of home students, but it should be part of a strategy that takes in schools and other parts of society, too.

After all, the future success of British industry will require the UK to reposition itself post-Brexit in a globalised and interconnected world, making new and different connections. To do this, people who understand and can work across cultures will be crucial – not just in universities but across society. If the government does not exhibit more ambition on internationalisation, such people will be in short supply.

Peter Brady is an international education consultant whose first book, Internationalisation of UK Post-1992 Universities: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, will be published by Anthem Press in October.


Print headline: ‘New’ strategy lacks ambition

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Reader's comments (1)

It's well past the point when UK universities can rely on the UK government for any support. The sector needs to start work in earnest on forging its own links and arrangements overseas because those worthless short-sighted self-serving politicians are not going to do a thing. That may mean putting money in out of our own budgets, but that investment will be repaid in greater collaboration and more mobile and diverse students. It's hard when your own government fails in its obligations, but you can either sit back and winge about their shortcomings, or get up and do your own thing, sidelining the government.