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Adam Habib: We need deeper deliberation about international students and internationalisation

  • 13 September 2021
  • By Adam Habib

This blog was kindly written by Adam Habib, Director at SOAS, University of London. Adam’s Twitter is @AdHabb.

HEPI’s recently released report on internationa students, produced in conjunction with the Universities UK International Unit and London Economics, has been received with much fanfare. The report suggests that the 496,000 international students benefit the UK to the tune of £28.8 billion. Moreover, the benefits are broadly spread, adding millions to local economies, including ‘£290 million a year to Sheffield Central, £181 million to Cardiff Central, and £171 million to Glasgow Central’. There is much of value in the report. It is an important corrective to some of the hostility in the UK around international students and their national value, providing evidence that they are not only a cost but also a benefit to the UK.

But should we not be concerned about the narrow commercial and nationalistic approach to the framing of the report and much of the Government’s plans around international education? This masks the fact that the way we are going about international education has some serious challenges. It is accelerating the brain drain and weakening institutional capacity and human capabilities in the developing world. The long-term consequences of this are dangerous for the world because we are moving into a historical moment where our biggest challenges are increasingly transnational and will require global solutions. Think about climate change or this global pandemic. If we are to address these, we are going to need to build institutional capacity and human capabilities around the world which will require rethinking our global partnerships in higher education.

In a wide-ranging and fascinating panel discussion at this year’s UUK conference, two of the panellists – Dame Anne Johnson, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences and Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser – highlighted the importance of internationalisation and global solutions to global challenges. Johnson spoke of the importance of equal partnerships and Vallance spoke of the need to ensure that vaccine production facilities are dispersed across the world to address future pandemics. But neither took the discussion to what this means for universities. Johnson highlighted the importance of equal partnerships, but the real conundrum is how to do this in an unequal world. And while Vallance highlighted the importance of geographically diversifying vaccine production faculties, do we not also need quality higher education and research institutions across the world so that we develop contextually relevant technologies and address the local manifestations of global challenges?

Yet the business model (and internationalisation strategy) of universities in the UK may actually be undermining this. After all, our business (and global partnership) model is to attract a significant pool of talented students in the developing world and bring them to the UK. The assumption is of course that these students will return home. But the evidence for this is sketchy at best. It is worth noting that when these students come here, life happens. They fall in love, they have families, they get jobs and stay. At a conference on the diaspora which I attended at the African Union in Addis Ababa just prior to the onset of the pandemic, Abdoulaye Gueye reviewed the history of student mobility in the world and demonstrated that 83% and 90% of students from India and China respectively did not return home. He suggests that this had significant consequences for the quality of their scientific institutions and their human capabilities. This trend may have reversed in the case of China in recent years as a result of their increased investments in higher education, but it is unlikely to be the case in much of the rest of the developing world. This is an important point to consider given the urgent need to develop and maintain academic, research and other institutional capacities and human capabilities across the world so as to address the local manifestations of global challenges. 

The solution to this challenge is not some retreat in autarchy or a closure of national borders. Rather, it is to think through an internationalisation and transnational education strategy that is centred more on institutions and less on individuals. This would require co-curriculation, co-teaching and co-credentialing among universities across national boundaries. It would require split-site scholarships that would enable students in the South to gain scientific knowledge, develop a global consciousness, have access to new equipment and funding networks – and yet be sufficiently rooted in institutions of the developing world to allow for this knowledge and skills to be deployed within their local contexts. Such a model of global higher education would also allow students from the developed world to have the opportunity to visit the developing world so that they too can understand different contextual circumstances and develop knowledge and skills that is more universally applicable. Furthermore, it would require a reimagination of the current business model of higher education that is excessively and unfairly reliant on international students paying fees that are three times the cost of domestic students, all of which is ironically done in the name of solidarity and building a collective human community.

The UUK conference correctly celebrated the strength of UK universities and their response to the pandemic. But it also revealed that there is an urgent need for a deeper deliberation on the internationalisation of higher education and how UK universities could collectively respond to the global challenges of our time. This would require a greater appreciation of the tension between our short-term need to build financially sustainable institutions and our long-term desire to be part of a global academy that is capable of responding to the global challenges of our time. Essentially, we require a deeper and more nuanced conversation than we are currently having. Otherwise, we may act now in a manner that destroys our collective future.


  1. albert wright says:

    The idea of a “United Nations” for Universities is interesting as is a new business model in a global
    world with national borders, widely differing cultural and political backgrounds and concepts of free speech.

    A key factor, as ever, will be who pays and who benefits.

    Within the UK, there are differences in how students are funded during their undergraduate and post graduate studies and, as far as I know, the countries within the EU do not have a common framework.

    When it comes to “ownership” of the intellectual property of “discoveries” from Universities involved in research, there are even greater challenges.

  2. neil john says:

    “Moreover, the benefits are broadly spread, adding millions to local economies, including ‘£290 million a year to Sheffield Central, £181 million to Cardiff Central, and £171 million to Glasgow Central’. There is much of value in the report. It is an important corrective to some of the hostility in the UK around international students and their national value, providing evidence that they are not only a cost but also a benefit to the UK.”

    Like so many things tied to students this glosses over many of the issues this money causes.
    Working in a Russell group University I’m only too well aware of our dependence on international students money, we make extra from ‘pre-sessional’ courses too, but it doesn’t really help the local communities, only the land-lords of HMO’s (hovels of maximum occupation). Much like desirable rural areas attract incomers who inflationary house purchasing forces locals children to leave the area of their birth, some areas of the city are now effectively ethnically cleansed of the aboriginal british and us others that settled with them to be replaced with ethnic mono-culture student ghettos in houses priced out of locals reach by the HMO land-lord syndicates.

    Of course most academics who live transitory lives moving from job to job and place to place don’t realise or care about such damage to communities, especially working class communities, Universities cause or enable in this way. I still mourn the loss of our West Indian club which closed due to lack of members due to HMO land-lords buying up all the rental property and forcing out our community so they could replace them with better paying (easier to fleece) international students.

  3. Robin Middlehurst says:

    This is an excellent blog and a much needed antidote to current policies surrounding internationalisation. It would be great if other universities in the UK would listen to this call for co-operation (and that perhaps Sir Steve Smith would act as an international champion for this agenda). It would also be good if the Whitehall Government heeded the call for long-term thinking about internationalisation in HE.

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