This blog was kindly contributed by Maddalaine Ansell, Director Education, the British Council.
Effective engagement with the Indo-Pacific region is critical to the UK’s economy, security and values. It is also crucial to maintaining the high quality of the UK’s higher education sector which is an enormous soft power asset and a major contributor to the UK economy. This is why the British Council is currently holding its first regional Going Global conference, ‘Going Global Asia Pacific,’ in Singapore.
More than half of international higher education students in the UK come from the Asia Pacific region with the two giants of China and India sending 24 per cent and 13 per cent of students respectively in 2020/21. China is also the UK’s largest market for transnational education. In terms of research, China is the UK’s second most important research partner (as we are theirs) with India coming 15th.
As a previous HEPI report revealed, tuition fees from international students are used to subsidise our research. Consequently, our reputation as a leading nation for higher education partially depends on income from these students and it is this reputation that, in turn, helps our universities attract so many international students.
The fact that so many Chinese and Indian students and researchers choose to study in and collaborate with the UK has been a tremendous blessing. However, the sector is rightly concerned about over-dependence on these two countries. The need for diversification away from China has been recognised for some time. At first, this arose from doubts about the business prudence of putting all our eggs in one basket, but more recently, concerns about working so closely with a state that holds different values from us have added urgency to discussions around what a sustainable international student recruitment model might look like.
Demographic changes in China, together with increased competition from third countries increasingly teaching in English, as well as China’s own improving domestic system, mean that we may be close to ‘peak China’ and political tensions could mean that reduced engagement could come even sooner than anticipated.
While the growth in applications from India are overtaking those from China, it is not a like-for-like replacement. Indian students tend to be concentrated at institutions charging lower average international tuition fees and spend, on average, only slightly more than half of what a Chinese student pays in tuition fees (based on British Council analysis of HESA data). Students from India may also be seen as riskier from a visa compliance point of view. Although overall compliance has been very good recently, with only three per cent of sponsored study visa applications rejected in 2021, India, like many other large sending countries does contain some rogue agents and universities must be vigilant to ensure that the numbers of refusals don’t creep up. To help with this, the British Council is about to launch a database of certified agents which UK education providers and prospective international students will be able to check to see if their agent is certified.
There simply are no other countries that offer the same volume of high-quality students as China. This means that seeking to recruit international students from elsewhere will not provide an easy answer to financial sustainability for the sector and wise universities are exploring alternative sources of income.
But as universities and government alike tackle financial sustainability for the research ecosystem, there are many other good reasons for looking to attract international students from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
The first, from a cultural relations point of view, is that many of the medium-sized countries in the region are important to the UK, particularly the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with whom the UK now has Dialogue Partner status. We have plenty of evidence that educational exchange through both student mobility and research collaboration builds trust and enables a whole host of positive interactions from tourism to trade to support in international multi-lateral forums. Universities, as bastions of civil society, have an important role and a responsibility to support the UK as it identifies and develops its role in a shifting world order.
The second reason is that a diverse student body adds to the vibrancy of a campus and gives UK students the opportunity to get to know people from many different countries and learn about their values and culture. A truly global Britain needs more people with a global outlook.
Thirdly, world class universities need international students and faculty. According to Universities UK International (UUKi), almost a third of university staff are from overseas. Many courses, particularly those at postgraduate level and in critical STEM subjects, are only viable because so many international students take them. These students are the research workforce of the future.
So, where else to look for international students? The first place to start is with the South-East Asian countries, particularly Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand – though more mature markets such as Malaysia and Singapore continue to offer pockets of growth potential. Rising incomes throughout the region have expanded the pool of potential students – but also expanded the international competition looking to attract them. The US, Australia and Canada are all interested. In addition, South-East Asian students are often technologically savvy and would consider quality online education.
The UK is the leading destination for students from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand but only attracts a small share of outbound students in other countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam. The UK is the leading international research partner in Malaysia but only the 8th largest collaborator in Vietnam.
Turning to South Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh both have considerable growth potential. The number of UK sponsored study visas issued to students from Bangladesh in 2021 was five times higher than the pre-pandemic figure in 2019, while the number of visas issued to Pakistani students tripled over the same period.
It is, however, important that we don’t drop the ball. The Newton and Global Collaboration Research Funds (GCRF) were important mechanisms for building new research relationships and we hope this will continue through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s new International Science Partnership Fund (ISPF).
It’s also very welcome that Sir Steve Smith, the International Education Champion, is visiting Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia this month. In South Asia, we need to increase our engagement with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Many of these countries are key markets for the Study UK marketing campaign.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we need to continue to make it clear that we value our international students, will make their journey as easy as possible and offer them the best possible experience when they come – one that will not only enrich their lives but also leave them with knowledge and skills that will give them the edge in the job market when they return home.
We sometimes segment international students in categories based on attainment profile and financial profile. Their ambitions and desire to remain in the UK after graduation can be another factor of analysis for policy-makers. What is clear across all segments is that a welcoming attitude is crucial. A return to the ‘hostile environment’ in place when I arrived to the UK would be harmful.