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Wendy Alexander: Assessing the new International Education Strategy

  • 12 February 2021
  • By Wendy Alexander

Wendy Alexander is the Vice-Principal (International) at the University of Dundee and was previously the Associate Dean of Global Business at the London Business School. She is also a former Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. You can find Wendy on Twitter @wendy_alexander.

It is an irony of our times that in the week the best International Education Strategy (IES) for a decade was published, we also witness the imposition of hotel-based quarantine for many international travellers, including incoming international students. In Scotland this managed quarantine now applies to all international arrivals. So, against this wintry backdrop what has the new International Education Strategy to offer?

The new IES was a refresh of the original Strategy launched in March 2019. That Strategy along with the announcement of the Graduate Route six months later, was the decisive break with the decade-long rhetoric around migration targets and the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ that did such damage to the UK’s relative standing in international student mobility from 2010 to 2018.

Credit where it is due, this Strategy, both the original version, and this meatier update, mark a sea change. The positive impact of that U-turn is reflected in the strong rebound in non-EU student numbers seen in the recently released HESA student data for 19/20.

The launch itself was a muted affair, ably presided over by Sir Steve Smith the ebullient and enthusiastic International Education Champion, appointed last year, and very much a friend of the sector, now with the inside track to Government. Whisper it quietly, the sponsoring Cabinet Ministers in Department for International Trade and the Department for Education, allowed their deputies Graham Stuart, Minister for Exports and Michelle Donnelan, Minister for Universities, to lead. Both display a defter touch with the sector.

In a second irony of our times, it is Brexit that has kindled the Government’s enthusiasm for international students. And every sentient minister, official in Whitehall and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office diplomat knows, if Global Britain is ever to be more than a soundbite Britain must focus on its remaining global assets, with British schools and higher education near the top of the list. The Government recognises that it needs the halo effect of the global influence the sector delivers. Hence the IES name checks HEPI’s 2020 Soft Power Ranking demonstrating that over 1-in-4 nations have a head of state or head of government educated in Britain, and only a handful of nations worldwide do not benefit from British transnational education (TNE). Graham Stuart, in his pre-launch speech to the UUKi TNE conference last week, lauded the education Gandhi and Malala received in the UK. A far cry from the tone under Theresa May, or even David Cameron. So, paradoxically, the UK Government is belatedly, and post-Brexit, now engaging with the sector on issues of global reach and influence in a way we have not seen for 20 years. For a parallel you might go as far back as the enthusiasm of the early Blair Government for ‘a young country’.

Olive branches pervade the document. And to mix metaphors, the sector would be wise not to look this gift horse in the mouth.

  • The growth targets for 2030 are ambitious but not unrealistic.
  • There is an acknowledgement of the need for ‘system-to-system’ engagement which has been historically lacking from distracted FCO diplomats. The merger with the Department for International Development has one upside in bringing greater expertise in education capacity building to the heart of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
  • There is a promise to use government heft to tackle barriers to trade, including recognition for online programmes and professional qualifications, which might historically have been fobbed off to the British Council or Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)
  • There are explicit, respectful references to the strategies of the Devolved Administrations.
  • There are imaginative plans for a new international teaching qualification taught by UK institutions.
  • There is recognition of the growing role of other parts of the ecosystem, including English Language Teaching, educational suppliers and EdTech, in UK exports.
  • There is a vital promise to continue to improve the visa application process that still carries the aura of compliance more than welcome.
  • And there are promises to strengthen employability, alumni networking, alternative funding arrangements as well as an eye-catching commitment to supporting growth in five priority markets.

Which brings us neatly to the third irony of this document, the country that dare not speak its name. China may be the world’s coming superpower, the source of almost 40% of non-EU international students, the host of the highest number of UK TNE students, and the saviour of some UK institutions’ solvency in recent years. It is the dog that does not bark, relegated to alongside Mexico in the list of regional opportunities. This of course is entirely deliberate to send a signal to the Chinese authorities about a growing distaste for authoritarianism. A narrative also currently playing out in the media surrounding university research collaborations. Nor is there any explicit mention that new EU students will now require a visa. And finally, a glib assertion that Turing will not pay fees to host institutions, despite the scheme lacking the glue of reciprocity or the certainty of secure funding.

Hence as with most Government documents, there are a mixed set of prescriptions: the good, the bad and the ugly all within these 65 pages. On balance there is much more of the good, than the bad and the ugly of recent years. The IES looks forward to 2030. That will frustrate those at the coalface managing parental concerns about the risks of studying in a country with a decidedly mixed COVID management track record. The imposition of hotel-based quarantine may be intended to improve global perceptions in advance of the next academic session. The SARS & MERS aftermaths in Asia demonstrate that the sector, and our international students (whether in the UK or studying remotely), have a rocky road ahead for at least the next two sessions. However, if the time to build back better is during a crisis, them the launch of the IES refresh is impeccably timed.


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