This blog was written by Anne Marie Graham, Chief Executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA). Anne Marie is on Twitter @A_M_Graham.
The UK education sector has built up a body of evidence on the widespread educational, cultural and social benefits that international students bring to our campuses and our communities. In 2019, the UK Government recognised these benefits in a notable positive shift, with the release of a new International Education Strategy and the announcement of a new post-study work route. More recently, the refresh of the International Education Strategy in 2021 was unequivocal about the importance of enhancing the international student experience, adding specific objectives related to improving the experience of international students before, during and after their studies.
This shift is in line with UKCISA’s vision that every international student who comes to the UK has a positive experience and can say that the UK is a welcoming place to study and live. Most importantly, the 2021 update signals a recognition that the experience of current international students has a major influence on the recruitment of prospective international students, a message which UKCISA’s #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors have been sharing with the sector and the Government since March 2020.
Despite the consensus on the benefits international students bring to UK higher education, there is still significant progress to be made in how the sector measures the experience of the international student as a (high-paying) consumer. The recent HESA data release describes how the UK has hit the 2019 Strategy’s target for recruiting 600,000 international students nearly a decade early. This is a huge achievement and a testament to the hard work and dedication of the higher education sector, especially during these difficult times. Now, the challenge for the UK is to maintain that growth, as competing education sectors reopen their borders to international students. To achieve this, the UK must retain its focus on maintaining and improving the international student experience, including ensuring that we monitor and evaluate what is important to international students, and provide sufficient resources and support to all those who work with international students.
The introduction of the graduate route in July 2021 created a new flexible work route for international graduates, allowing them to stay in the UK for two years (three after a PhD) to work in roles that do not require sponsorship. This move allows graduates to find jobs in a wider range of roles and sectors, including freelance work, and enables a wider range of organisations – including those that do not hold a sponsor licence – to employ international graduates and benefit from their skills and experience. The graduate route is already proving to be attractive, with recent data from UCAS showing significant increases in non-EU recruitment, including from markets that suffered following the removal of the previous post-study work route. However, we must create conditions for the route to succeed in the long term, including the ability to measure its impact on international graduates.
HEPI / Kaplan research published in October 2021 and the more recent UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Commission reiterate the importance of employability to international students and focus on what more should be done to support students and graduates in developing their careers. I think we can all understand, given that they invest so much in a UK education – financially and emotionally – that international students expect a return on their investment. Robust data on progression outcomes is key to measuring this return.
UKCISA is clear that we must further develop our evidence base on international graduate outcomes, wherever or whatever they go on to do. The sector needs robust data to recruit and market to prospective students and to provide appropriate careers and employability support for international students in the UK. However, sector agencies are currently scaling back their approach to collecting data on these outcomes. HESA recently announced its decision to cease international calling from December 2021 as part of its work to collect international graduate outcomes. We know from initial pulse surveys of institutions that this decision is already having a material impact on the response rate, an impact that diminishes our evidence base at a time when we as a sector are looking to expand it. To add to this, the current Office for Students (OfS) consultation on a new approach to regulating student outcomes notably excludes non-UK domiciled students from progression metrics.
Although a lack of data may not stop international students coming to study in the UK in the short term, it will inevitably limit our understanding of their behaviours and needs in the long term. The impact of a scaled-back approach to data collection will not just be felt by the sector but also by the Government, as it will restrict its ability to reach the targets of the International Education Strategy and evaluate policies that relate to international students.
It is at best puzzling and at worst disappointing that a significant proportion of our student population – international students form almost 25% of the overall student population in UK higher education – is excluded from the core mechanisms for collecting and monitoring outcomes data. It is even more baffling that we are making this change at a time when we are consistently stating the importance of this data. It certainly sends a strange message as a recruitment strategy. It will likely impact the support that international students receive from their institutions, as resources are diverted to those areas with more metrics, or to institutions that invest in additional data collection mechanisms. Ultimately, international students may choose to study in regions with better employability data, which would reduce our student diversity and impact our education sector, society and economy.
It is not too difficult to tackle, but the last two years have unearthed so many challenges that perhaps it is easier to say that it is too difficult right now. Yet if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that technology can be developed at pace to help us communicate. These developments have not been fully explored, and we continue to rely on tried, trusted and potentially outdated technologies and communication strategies to reach our international graduates. I hope that HESA will react to the inevitable reduced response rate by moving to procure a new and even more cost-effective way of collecting outcomes data from international graduates overseas. This should be done in close consultation with the sector to counteract a critical drop in the response rate, which could render data unusable for many institutions.
We are supporting HESA to develop a better understanding of international students and graduates in order to help it achieve an effective communications approach tailored to the needs and expectations of international students. Nevertheless, the sector still needs relevant data to support the development of teaching and learning, as well as student support.
We need a genuine commitment to monitoring the progression outcomes of international students, just as we measure those of the domestic student population. If we can’t demonstrate an understanding of their completion rates, their progression routes and their employment patterns, any messaging about our desire to deliver the best possible international student experience will ring hollow.
See HEPI’s recent blog post, ‘On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Call to Action for the UK Higher Education Sector’ . Dr Uilleam Blacker from UCL shares how the UK can better support Ukrainian students and academics.
The collection of data on outcomes is really important, and thanks for raising the issue so clearly. I would like to add the importance of assessing the impact of international student education on global inequalities in access to higher education. This perspective is missing from most discussions on international students – which focus on the benefit to universities and to the economy in the UK (or Australia in my case).