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Why today’s International Education Strategy is welcome but guaranteed to fail unless we adopt more ambitious policies

  • 16 March 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

Today’s new educational exports strategy is welcome. It puts hard numbers on what we can achieve, which usefully focuses minds. There is a new target of £35 billion in education exports, including 600,000 international higher education students in the UK, by 2030.

There are some caveats too of course:

  • the targets are so far in the distance that we can be certain current Ministers will no longer be in post to be held accountable for hitting or missing them;
  • the silliest target of all, the commitment to reduce net inward migration (of which students are a major part) to the tens of thousands, has yet to be officially rescinded; and
  • while the report is jointly owned by the Education and Trade Departments, without the full endorsement of the Home Office it won’t succeed.

Nonetheless, let’s be clear: as the first proper official statement on educational exports since 2013, it is welcome. The spotlight should now be put on reaching the new targets, which are upward and positive.

However, before we get too excited, as the chart below shows, there are some important things to note about the new targets.

  1. The overall trajectory for desired growth is actually lower than that assumed by the last Government target. It is also, at 4% a year, much lower than elsewhere – Australia has been enjoying an annual growth rate of over 17%.
  2. We are currently very badly off the trajectory to hit this last target, which shows that setting targets far from guarantees success. As page 5 of the new paper makes clear, instead of hitting the target set in 2015 of £30 billion in education export earnings by 2020, we are only currently on course to be on £23 billion by then.
  3. Although the new target is less ambitious than the old one and way below what has been achieved in other countries, we can still only hit the new 2030 target if we perform better in the future than in every recent year.

To hit the new target we would clearly need some new policies even if things like Brexit didn’t threaten current successes. While today’s paper is open about being the start of a new journey, it doesn’t include policies of the scale needed to guarantee success – the section on further education, for example, is particularly unambitious.

We’ll be launching a major new report on Thursday, with Kaplan International Pathways and London Economics, which helps explain what policies might sensibly be adopted to put us on the right trajectory.

If we don’t do that, our competitors can rest assured that they will continue to catch us up and, in time, overtake us.

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