This blog was written by former Universities Minister the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP. It is adapted from a speech delivered via video link from the UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in Brussels to a roundtable event organised by London Higher and Oxford International Education Group in May 2022.
I very much hope that higher education and research will be part of our dialogues for the future – and will do all I can personally to impress upon the UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly the importance of shared partnership, collaboration and exchange. Indeed, the last time I was in Brussels, back in May 2019, I had continued to make a stand for what I believed was vital during the Brexit negotiations: that we should not see the lives and livelihoods of young people as bargaining chips in any future deal or no deal scenario. Then I announced that the UK would continue to offer home fee status for EU students for the 2020/21 academic year. Already by then, there was widespread concern on the impact that Brexit was happening on EU student recruitment. And as we have witnessed, with the subsequent removal of home fee status for EU students, universities, particularly those in London, have been faced by a sharp reduction in EU students studying in the UK.
In anticipation of this fall in European students, I sought to engage the sector on how, together, we might work to establish a clear pathway for demonstrating a commitment to continue to grow our international education market as one of the UK’s important global exports. How we might seek both to counter any reduction in European student applications, by trying to move away from a dependence upon a few countries for recruitment – and to seek a more strategic approach for recruiting across a more diverse range of countries.
For this task, the appointment of an international education champion, a single point of contact to provide leadership to help deliver the strategy would be key, yet also a clear ambition of what success looked like also was needed, which is why we set ourselves what seemed at the time an ambitious target of 600,000 international students attending UK universities by 2030, with an annual education export market of £35 billion. Once the strategy was published in March 2019, it provided the blueprint for both the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade to ask what policy levers would be required to deliver the framework and ambitions set out. Several months later, the two-year post-study work VISA was reinstated for 2021, with a three-year post-study work visa for PhD students.
Having been borne out of what seemed like a potential crisis, the International Education Strategy has subsequently helped to shape and deliver an opportunity; those targets, particularly the 600,000 figure, now look set to have been reached eight years early if current trajectories continue into autumn 2022. Last year, the Department published an update to the International Education Strategy, reaffirming a commitment to reaching the milestones mentioned, with a stocktake of progress to date; yet aside from the introduction of international teacher training, it lacked any new ambitions or policy innovations.
So, with the 600,000 target well within reach, it is time, more than three years on, to ask ourselves what a new international education strategy should look like. What are the updated, revised targets that we might aim for?
I would warn strongly against resting on our laurels. Many of the reasons for the UK’s recent progress in international education has also been due to the decline in admissions to the US, the result of decisions taken under a previous Presidential administration, that are now being rectified. The pandemic also, while proving disastrous in the short term for the international student experience in the UK, witnessed a growth in UK admissions partly as a consequence of the shut down in Australia and tighter COVID restrictions in other English-speaking nations. These policy decisions are also now, or likely in the near future, soon to be reversed. Not only this, but the UK also potential faces competition from these countries surrounding their own offer to international students: Canada now has a three-year post-study work visa offer; Australia a four-year post-study work visa. I personally, along with my other former colleague Lord Johnson, have called for serious consideration to how the UK’s own offer on student VISAs should be once more be made more competitive if we are to keep up in this global knowledge race.
But I would also argue that the sector cannot simply go cap in hand to the Government and expect all policy innovation to come from the centre. Indeed, many of you already have simply got on with the job of establishing your own institutional international education strategies, seeking to diversify your international education intakes, monitoring carefully where your own institution is potentially missing an opportunity for expansion. This is important work, for the wealth of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and elsewhere can help pinpoint where interventions need to be made, and indeed what are the most productive interventions that can be made; I know that Oxford International and the other organisations will be making available some of that data to highlight the potential, as well as the pitfalls, for future international student recruitment in London.
Let me say clearly, that the one thing that always struck me when I visited, almost all but not every, sadly, university in London, was the remarkable diversity of provision. I truly believe that London is unique around the globe. Some 30 institutions, ranging from research intensive universities, teaching universities, pre-1992 mission led institutions such as Birkbeck College of which I am now proud to call myself an honorary fellow, to smaller specialist institutions. Not only is there a wealth of provision on offer in London, but also a range of world-leading facilities. I will never forget the first university visit I made as Universities Minister, to St Mary’s Twickenham, where to my surprise, on visiting the Olympic sized running track, I found myself face-to-face with Sir Mo Farah, out training.
Yet unlike many other cities that might host one university, or usually juggle the friendly rivalry between two leading institutions, London’s strength in numbers, is perhaps also, when it comes to international student recruitment, one of its weaknesses. Amongst such rich diversity and a range of provision, how can universities and higher education providers in London present a common front, and a shared ambition to international countries around the globe? One of the issues for all of us who have lived in the capital for more than a few years is one of perception: unknowingly, unwittingly, we begin to view our own identities through a regional lens, even a community outlook that shuns that wider vision of a single capital city. London Higher has done a remarkable job in helping to bring all the rich and varied strands of the sector in London to speak with one voice. Internationally, students don’t see London as 32 boroughs; they view the opportunity to come to London as the chance to live in one of the most important English-speaking cities in the world, and we must not forget that, for each institutional target, we are stronger together, to borrow a phrase.
What should this mean for how London approaches international education? For a start, perhaps we should reflect on where London has led elsewhere, politically: the establishment of the powerful figure of an elected Mayor of London not only transformed democratic politics and its accountability, it also led to deeper investment and strategic delivery of priorities that have also transformed the city for the better. No surprise that we have seen other cities follow suit, as the clamour for local devolution continues to grow. Indeed, with the devolution of skills provision, and the establishment of local skills and education partnerships in the Skills Act, I believe that there is much more that can be done to deliver across a locally devolved agenda in education.
Which is why I believe that we need not only to create a new International Education Strategy, with revised and more ambitious targets, but that in doing so we should also seek to establish Regional International Education Strategies, with regional international education champions to aid their delivery. The adoption of these strategies would aim not only for neighbouring universities to collaborate on their own admissions targets, but also to work together to plan for how to provide the best welfare and services for international students, from housing to even giving full consideration to wider cultural and religious needs. And in London, I see the awesome potential for the 30 or so institutions to seek to come together, and provide leadership for a new model of how we frame delivery for international education. A model that doesn’t simply rely on the binary relationship between the sector as a whole and government, but one which seeks to highlight the importance of place in taking responsibility in driving forward a future vision on the importance of international students for a particular area.
After all, I have always been struck by how the HEPI data on the overwhelmingly positive economic impact of international students has never been adopted to deliver local strategies for enhancing provision, with universities working not just amongst themselves, but also with local authorities, and indeed providers of pathways and other educational services who can help those institutions unable to provide the administrative and teaching support to grow their international student communities, to deliver shared success.
We all know how competitive the UK sector is, and this is reinforced by the view that it is a zero-sum game. But we are seeing the emergence of more sophisticated collaborative models, indeed there has been substantial collaboration in the much smaller Scottish higher education sector for a long time, and it is time to embrace a more collaborative approach as this has the potential for everyone to benefit from enhancing the international education provision in a region and the challenges are too significant for any one institution, no matter how powerful and well-known to realise its potential working alone.
A strategy can help strengthen and shape what those individual offers are; as we all know, international students are not an amorphous group; they are driven by their own priorities, ambitions for the future; often they know exactly where they want to be. They just need to be given the right information and resources to make the right decisions for themselves. Yet often this information is lacking, or in the hands of recruiters abroad and sales-based websites whose knowledge on the ground of the reality of UK higher education is sorely lacking. A London led, first regional international education strategy, that acts as a wider prospectus for the city, can help begin to address this.
A London International Education Strategy would also allow the London higher education sector to align its focus around shared priorities and challenges. I would suggest that for a first strategy, this might include how not only London can reverse the trend of losing market share in overseas enrolments to the rest of the UK, but also learn the lessons from better performance compared to the rest of the UK in respect of EU enrolments – so there is both an opportunity for London to spearhead re-engagement with Europe through co-ordinated action amongst London institutions and a challenge in terms of addressing declining share of overseas enrolments. In addition, one of the challenges for London is China – the dependence of the big research-intensive universities in London on recruitment from a country that has an explicit policy of moving to becoming a net importer of globally mobile students and the rapid fall in Chinese enrolments for other types of universities – of which there are many in London. However, London is the only UK city that can match the scale of the Tier-1 cities in China that host leading Chinese universities – is there not then an opportunity for partnership across the London higher education ecosystem with Shanghai or the Greater Bay Area or other major urban centres around the world?
Where London leads, as with the establishment of the London mayor, I have no doubt the rest of the country will follow. So, from one capital city to another, I hope that we can all engage in new discussions, learn from new data being provided today, and think about what we can all do differently in order to transform international education provision and opportunities, so that London remains a global beacon for higher education.