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A Premier League success story? Why global higher education is critical to our diverse local economies and communities in the UK

  • 24 November 2023
  • By Paul Angrave
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Paul Angrave, Associate Director of Public Affairs at the University of Leicester.

The Premier League is widely regarded as one of the UK’s finest global exports. An industry that has a proud historic tradition on these shores and is the envy of most nations across the world. Lauded as a great British brand, its powerful global reach is a tool in international soft power diplomacy and a magnet for overseas investment. Unquestionably, it attracts the best talent from across the world, who showcase their skills in world-leading facilities in towns and cities up and down the land: global talent working alongside local talent to produce world-class results.

Few would argue with the statements above, least not me as those who know me would testify, but the same could be said of UK higher education. A prestigious UK export industry that is highly-respected worldwide. An industry, like football, that is global and civic, distributed across all geographical areas of the country, and an engine for economic growth and ‘levelling up’ in those places.

International students are vital to higher education and the UK – they bring global perspectives, talent, and skills to every part of our country. UUK and the Higher Education Policy Institute have carried out excellent research highlighting that, among many wider benefits to the UK, international students support the economy to the tune of £41.9 billion a year. The contributions of international students in the UK are celebrated in the highly-impactful #WeAreInternational campaign, which re-launched on 26 September this year.

Spurred by these campaigns, in Leicester and Leicestershire, we came together with our community and local civic and political leaders to galvanise support and reinforce the positive messages advocated in them. We spoke with a united regional voice, under the banner of our Universities Partnership – a civic agreement between De Montfort University, Loughborough University, the University of Leicester, and five local authorities.

International students in our three universities spend £100 million in our region annually and support 1,200 jobs. Backed by local civic and political leaders, we are keen to celebrate and enhance the impact of international education in our region.

That is why we held ‘Universities Partnership International’ a week-long programme to promote dialogue between our international partners, universities, local civic leaders, stakeholders, and businesses. We invited international higher education partners from as far afield as China, India, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas to visit our region with the aim of bringing together our international and local partners in one place and allowing them to hear from one another directly.

We explored perceptions of the UK and our region, analysed factors that attract international students, and discussed practical ways that we can enhance communications, support and engagement between international students and our locality.

Four themes emerged from our discussions.

  1. The region’s political, civic, and business leaders were overwhelmingly positive about welcoming international students to the region and value the contributions and international perspectives they bring into our communities and businesses. Without exception, they were keen to learn more about international students and expressed a desire to ensure students felt welcome in the region.
  2. The UK’s diversity – our location in Leicester is among the first majority non-white ‘super diverse’ cities in the country – was seen as a big positive for international students seeking to settle in an unfamiliar place. Students felt reassured by diversity in our staff and communities and comforted by food and cultural experiences that provide home-from-home familiarity. Many students also seek to live with family members already in the UK to reduce costs of living.
  3. Post-study work opportunities and careers support were identified as the most important emerging factor for international students choosing where to study – with work opportunities perceived as hard to access in the UK but highly beneficial to students. A point that was duly noted by business who participated in our programme and who were keen to benefit from global skills and perspectives.
  4. Finally, our partners felt it was important to provide opportunities like this programme for them to engage directly with communities in the UK. They enjoyed meeting dignitaries in person, including HM Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire and our local civic mayors, who all extended heartfelt welcomes to them. Partners reflected that this warmth in the UK towards international education was sometimes not reflected in rhetoric and media coverage overseas.

Following the programme, we are summarising the themes and outcomes and will be presenting them to our partners on the Universities Partnership Steering Group with recommendations for how the universities and civic partners can work together to attract, support, and retain international students in the region. It will provide a blueprint for further engagements as we seek to build on the programme in future years.

We believe we may be among the first universities to collaborate in this open manner for the benefit of the wider region, putting aside concerns over what might be considered by some as institutional competition to attract international students. 

Concluding where I began, and prolonging my extended football analogy, I would argue that just like our treasured football clubs, our universities are global, yet also civic institutions embedded in our communities. And, just like our football clubs, our universities fly the flag for the Britain internationally. HEPI’S 2023 Soft-Power Index showed that over one-quarter of the world’s countries are headed by someone educated in the UK.

As we work together as a sector to communicate the economic and social impact of UK higher education to the public, it is worth considering whether higher education holds the same place in our nation’s hearts and minds as the Premier League?

A 2022 publication by the Premier League reported that it contributes £7.6bn to the UK economy and £1.4 billion in global TV exports. Although not like-for-like, UUK calculated that universities contribute £130 billion to the UK economy and, as previously quoted, £41.9 billion through international higher education exports.

To this day, our international partners tell us that our region is known globally for two miraculous events – Leicester City Football Club’s 5000-1 triumph of winning the Premier League and the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in a car park in the city. A football club and a university flying the flag for the region. Now that’s a result!

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