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What about me? International student attainment in UK higher education

  • 20 February 2020
  • By Susan Smith

This blog was kindly contributed by Susan Smith, Associate Dean (Education and Students) at the University of Sussex Business School.

All graphs in this article use data from the HESA Student Record.

As the higher education sector prepares to help the government realise its ambitious target of 600,000 international students participating in UK higher education by 2030, I examine how our existing cohorts of international undergraduate students are performing in the UK higher education system and why their performance is not the subject of debate.

While the headlines might imply that the published data on undergraduate grade inflation relates to the full cohort, this is not typically the case. Indeed, the Office for Students’s reports to date have generally focused on UK-domiciled students:

‘The proportion of UK-domiciled, full-time first degree graduates attaining a first class honours degree from an English higher education provider has increased from 16 per cent in 2010-11 to 29 per cent in 2017-18, an overall increase of roughly 80 per cent over the period’.

Office for Students, 2019

This focus on a subset of the overall cohort may lead to unintended consequences. As universities work to reduce attainment gaps in some parts of the cohort, which are measured, researched and reported, there is a risk that they may be neglecting attainment gaps that exist elsewhere.

The outcomes data is not explicitly made available through the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) public tables but is found through the HEIDI plus data platform, which requires an institutional log-in to access. This may be a contributing factor to the lack of focus on the outcomes for international students.

What the data tables tell us:

  • UK domiciled students remain the largest group of graduating students (82% in 2018/19);
  • EU students consistently perform better than UK students but currently only represent 6% of the overall graduating cohort. This group of students is vulnerable to changes in policy for European students following Brexit;
  • Non-EU students consistently made up 13% of the overall graduating cohort over the five years to 18/19 as overall student numbers increased by 12% over the same period;
  • The attainment gap between UK and non-EU students has been narrowing over time, but persists at 11.6% between ‘good degree’ outcomes and remains largely unexplained; and
  • This group is likely to grow as the government pursues its 2030 targets.

The BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) attainment gap, which recently has been the focus of significant attention, measures outcomes of UK domiciled students. For the year 2017/18 the gap stood at 13%, with 81% of white students achieving a first or 2.1 in contrast to 68% of BAME students (UUK, 2019). In comparison, the non-EU attainment level was lower at 66.8% in the same academic year (table below). We also know that BAME students comprised approximately 24% of the UK undergraduate student population in; therefore it is appropriate that it should be the initial focus of attention.

The student data shows that there is a persistent difference in attainment for non-EU undergraduate students studying at UK universities. As we prepare to expand our cohorts of non-EU international students, it is our responsibility to seek to understand the drivers of differences in attainment. One means of increasing the visibility across the sector is for consistent measurement of the performance of our international cohorts with a rigour and transparency similar to that now applied to BAME attainment.

While the drivers of differences in attainment may differ from those affecting BAME students, some of the current interventions may also benefit non-EU students, for example, the inclusive curriculum and universal design for learning approaches. It is important that data is captured in relation to all student groups so that the sector as a whole can better understand and address such differences.

The limited research that exists in relation to non-EU student outcomes predominantly focuses on Chinese students, who currently make up the largest group of international students within UK higher education. However, many studies appear to be small-scale based on a case study of one cohort at a single institution.

It is important that more research is encouraged in this area to better understand all differences in attainment and that this is supported by transparent and consistent reporting of attainment of a broader range of subsets of the student body.

Some initial questions to spark the debate might include:

  • How do universities transition international students into UK higher education? Can we better share practice? How does this impact attainment?
  • What differences facilitate the persistently better performance of EU students in comparison to both UK and non-EU students?
  • Are attainment gaps universal or are they localised by subject of study? With over 50% of non-EU students studying business and management subjects, might a focused study in business schools help us better understand the contributing factors?

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