This blog was kindly contributed by Anne-Marie Graham, Chief Executive at UKCISA.
When the International Education Strategy was first published last year it set a clear intention and commitment to the sector that international education was firmly on the Government’s agenda – with a specific target to increase international student numbers to 600,000 per year by 2030.
Elaborating on this point, the Strategy stated one of its aims was to:
Continue to provide a welcoming environment for international students and develop an increasingly competitive offer. This includes extending the post-study leave period, considering where the visa process could be improved, supporting employment, and ensuring existing and prospective students continue to feel welcome.
And while these points were very welcome, the strategy overlooked two critical elements:
- What do the students think?
- How do we measure the value of the international student experience?
This is where UKCISA and our expertise in supporting international students, forged over more than 50 years, comes in to play.
Delivering a world-class international student experience
In July, we published our policy position paper Delivering a world-class international student experience, setting out the 15 key steps the Government needs to take to deliver on the ambitions in the Strategy – from expanding flexibility in the immigration system, to developing an International Student Charter.
So what do we mean by this? Well, defining what a world-class international student experience actually is may well be subjective, but there are some clear and cohesive threads, such as ensuring students feel welcome, safe and part of their communities; that they are listened to; and their wider contributions to their communities are appreciated beyond the sector.
Every day our specialist team of advisers support prospective international students – and staff at our member institutions – to navigate the complexities of the UK immigration system so that they can come to the UK for their studies. The sheer volume of requests we receive is indicative of the pressing need for reform. That’s why in our position paper we call for the recent COVID-19 concessions to be extended and generally for a more flexible, accessible, fairer and equitable immigration system that makes international students feel welcome right from the start of their journey. The new points-based immigration system goes some way to address this, with the introduction of the Student Route (which recently replaced the Tier 4 immigration route) we can expect to see a streamlined, fairer process for all – and our team at UKCISA has contributed to the simplification of the new rules.
Of course, a student’s experience is only just beginning at this stage, taking them right through from their studies, to graduation, and then onwards to the world of work where the skills and knowledge they have gained are applied. Ensuring each of these stages are considered and built into any policies designed to enhance the international student experience is critical.
Demonstrating our commitment through an International Student Charter
If the International Education Strategy is a commitment to the sector from government, then an International Student Charter would be our commitment to the students themselves.
Designed in partnership with international students and those who support them, such a charter would provide:
- a clear message of welcome;
- an indication of what international students can expect at each stage of their journey; and
- a framework to evaluate the international student experience.
After all, how do we know if we are hitting the targets laid out in the International Education Strategy – or indeed the right ones – if we don’t ask the students themselves?
Ultimately, the Charter would help the sector showcase the excellent student support it already offers, while providing a stimulus to improve where there are gaps. It will also enable us to develop new initiatives, for example to address the employability agenda. Across the sector, there is an appetite to address this and develop a better understanding of international graduate outcomes, but we need the right resources to address it.
Building our evidence base is a central theme to our position paper and this is something we believe the Charter could help support by celebrating excellence and providing a clear structure in which to identify examples of best practice. More to the point, it would cement the importance of student experience and position student voice as central to policymaking. As one of our #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors, Michelle Jideofor, says:
It’s necessary to have international students represent international students. We know our struggles; we have gone through them, so we better know how to deal with them. Being in spaces where we can influence policy, discussing and representing international students who otherwise would not be able to have their say is critical.
Looking to the future
So what’s next? Our ambition is to see the 15 policies laid out in our position paper reflected in the refreshed International Education Strategy, which is due to be published imminently.
Through the #WeAreInternational campaign and Student Ambassador Programme, UKCISA will continue to lead a collaborative effort to provide a platform for international students themselves to engage in policy dialogue and influence change.
UKCISA will continue to use its expertise to support the ambitions set out in the first iteration of the International Education Strategy – namely advising on reforms in the immigration system, ensuring international students continue to feel welcome and creating the conditions which help students forge a lifelong connection to the UK.