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The soft power benefits from international students are now more important than ever

  • 15 September 2021

Today’s blog was kindly contributed by Linda Cowan, Managing Director at Kaplan International Pathways. Linda is on Twitter @LCpathways.

Last week’s report, The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy, published by UUKi and HEPI with research from London Economics, showed the net economic benefit to the UK of the 2018/19 intake of international students was £25.9 billion.

When the original net benefit analysis, using the same research methodology by London Economics, was published in 2018 by HEPI and Kaplan for the 2015-16 cohort, the net benefit was £20.3 billion, laying to rest the troubling scepticism at the time about the costs versus benefits of welcoming international students to the UK. 

In only three years, the net benefit had increased by £5.6 billion, underscoring the now incontestable fact that international students are not only a net benefit, but have been making a significant and growing contribution to the UK economy, as well as the many other benefits international students bring to the campuses of our colleges and universities in the UK. 

These net economic benefit figures cannot be ignored, especially at a time when our economy is hit on all sides by the pandemic and Brexit. Recent headlines like UK economic recovery stalled in July amid worker shortages, GDP grew by only 0.1% despite removal of most Covid controls and Exports slump in July as UK explores non-EU markets or Brexit: UK food and drink exports to EU plummet by £2bn paint a clear picture. Both the report published last week and the earlier report in 2018, confirm that net economic benefits are widely spread across the UK — from north to south and east to west.

And, not only should we be welcoming international students with open arms for the economic contribution they make, but as has been widely noted and celebrated, they make our universities more diverse, interesting and exciting. They play an important part in helping students from all parts of the UK understand other cultures and the value of working across cultures, vitally important for the UK economy to compete globally.

Yet, there is one incontrovertible benefit of hosting international students that has taken on a new urgency in recent years – that of soft power.  The socio-political and environmental instability around the world with the stark realities of climate change, terrorism, human rights violations, and regime change, intensified by divisive politics and ‘fake news’, create a need like never before for great numbers of highly educated critical thinkers from all cultures and regions.

And, with the announcement in recent days of closures and staff reductions at many key British Council locations around the world, the soft power nurtured by our universities becomes even more critical. The annual HEPI Soft-Power index, which counts how many serving world leaders were educated in countries other than their own, consistently shows the UK performing well with it remaining in a comfortable second place, after the US, in the report published in September 2021. It would be interesting to do the same for the top global companies around the world. One for another day.

Detailed and rigorous reports like these produced on the net economic benefits of international higher education students are needed to inform decision making about how we attract, nurture and educate the problem solvers of tomorrow. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

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  1. albert wright says:

    The benefits from welcoming overseas students are many and varied. The economic benefits are similar to those we get from foreign tourists.

    The soft power benefits are also substantial and help the UK to have a greater cultural and political influence in the world.

    The presence of foreign students at UK Universities allows our domestic students to live in more diverse communities and offers the potential to acquire a greater understanding of the world and its people.

    However, there is another side to this coin in that some foreign students may be hostile to our nation, sent here by Governments who do not have our best interests at heart and whose purpose may relate to terrorism / subversion.

    Recent press reports have commented on large foreign donations to some Universities with a view to promote their soft power and gain influence that may not be benign. We need to remain vigilant.

  2. £5.6 billion – an eye-watering amount. But you’re right, Linda – it’s not just the financial impact it is indeed the soft power. It’s not until you travel that your eyes are truly opened. As Mark Twain said:
    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” What an opportunity then for students in our universities to mix with international students and indeed for everyone who has the benefit of meeting such bright, able, openminded people.

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