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Taking a global view of UK international education policy

  • 9 January 2024
  • By Ian Crichton
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Ian Crichton, CEO of Study Group.

For the past year, I have been privileged to lead a global provider of international education. We work with universities around the world to help increase global participation and I am deeply proud of the outstanding education taken up by students ambitious for their studies and their futures.

Most of our students are aiming to be successful undergraduates and more than half of them come from the Far East. Almost all of those return home on completion of their studies, or after a short period of post-degree work experience to put into practice what they have learned. The same is true for most of our students from the Middle East and, although South Asian students are the most likely of our international cohorts to consider staying in the UK, many of ours will return home too. 

The opportunity for all of these students to stay in their study destination country for a period of post-study work is critical, as it provides an important opportunity to cement their understanding and experience, enhance their careers and mitigate the costs of study. A few are even working on the front line of our public services as nurses, doctors and allied health professionals at a time where such help is badly required post-Covid. Here in the UK, they all contribute to the economy not only as students through their fees but as graduates through their taxes. 

The value to Britain and the world is immense — reinforcing our reputation for first-class learning, giving foreign nationals direct experience of our democratic culture and ways, allowing people from all over the world to get together and value what we all have in common, as well as our differences. 

We have long been seen as a welcoming, safe country, and as such a magnet to people seeking a better life. Managing entry to the UK is a challenge that clearly needs to be addressed, but as an immigration issue, not an education one. Britain’s prestige has suffered greatly in recent years, our international standing has fallen as our influence has receded, but we remain fully-equipped and highly-effective within global academic circles and need to do our level best to protect that capability. This is completely in the national interest and wholly dependent on our ability to continue to engage credibly with the world around us. Very few world-leading discoveries in the 21st century are made by anything other than diverse, international, broadly experienced teams.

What next for post-study work?

So how do I respond to the latest announcements from Government, and in particular its decision to ask the Migration Advisory Committee to review how to prevent the abuse of post-study work visas?

My answer is more nuanced than you might expect. 

Let us begin with those fears of abuse. I recognise those, I understand the concern and am fully supportive of sensible measures to stamp it out, including intolerance for organisations which deliberately betray trust in rigorous compliance.

For many years, the UK recruited the largest proportion of international students from China. These students brought very few dependents and were less motivated by the offer of a period of post-study work, even though it offered the opportunity of international work experience and mitigating the cost of fees.   

But the experience of Covid and the priorities of the UK International Education Strategy urged universities to diversify. A reduction in EU students sped things up. The Office for Students reinforced this through its concerns about over-dependence on a single country — China — and so every university I know began to focus on recruitment from other study destinations, such as South Asia and Africa. Many of these students came as postgraduates, to take up Masters and at that life stage many had dependents, some of whom came with them.

Here the promise of post-study work was not a ‘nice to have’, it was a crucial factor in a family investment decision. There was something of a global arms race on post-study work periods as nations sought to attract students, but with that there were new challenges: how to ensure all applications were legitimate and that we could be sure the students who we helped to travel to study were rigorously compliant. 

This was made doubly challenging during Covid, but our approach was not to go it alone but to work closely with the sector, with our university partners and with government to get it right. That is what we did; we made mistakes along the way, learned from them, changed our approach and continue to do so. At Study Group our only interest is enabling access to global education and we work extremely closely with our agent network and partners to ensure that is what we provide. 

This year has seen the Government express concerns about the motivations of students from China, spying and so on. I don’t see it in the eyes of the 18-year old students I meet — only wonder at the way Britain works, challenge in getting good enough at our language and surprise at how different our education system is to their own. Are there Chinese spies in Britain? I expect there are – I equally expect that Britain will have its own in China — but education is not about spying, it is about sharing knowledge, so important in a joined-up world where global conflict hurts everyone. 

Simultaneously, the Government now have concerns about South Asian and African students intentions – do they come here to study or come here to stay? If you block all of these source countries off you cut off 90% of international undergraduates given the massive decline in EU students post Brexit. From a university perspective, the UK is in direct competition with Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand today, arguably with select EU countries too. In the next decade, I expect competition for international students to come from China, South East Asia and India as well. Students themselves have a choice and we forget that at our peril. Are there risks here that fall to be managed — absolutely — but let us identify and mitigate them rather than seeking to avoid them altogether by disengaging with the world and crippling our universities. 

Lessons learned 

My response to any minister who is concerned about systemic abuse is to come and see how we are working on this at Study Group. We work with 15 high-calibre higher educational institutions of different types in the UK and Ireland. We also work across a network of thousands of agents covering more than 60 countries. It is not in our interests to recruit students who are not first and foremost serious about study, and we have spent many years ensuring that the students we recruit are genuine and motivated to succeed. Many come based on the recommendations of friends who have returned home successfully with their degrees and, given the investment involved, parents expect results.

For our students, their route to a better life is a degree, their learning and their experience, not just a visa. If you believe Britain providing higher education globally is a good thing, and I do, then we need more of this, not less of it. 

But there is something else I would add. 

The huge benefits of international education to any country — through a thriving higher education sector and buoyant economy — are dependent on global perceptions of welcome. The UK is not alone in sending mixed messages but we need to get our stories straight. Stopping education being used as a back door for mass immigration, yes; but let us also ensure a warm welcome for the talented young people who make our country and world a better place. Study Group is sending more and more students to the US, and soon we will be increasing the countries that we send students to as we go forwards with new partners. But it would be nice to think that, as a UK company, the jewel in our crown would remain the UK.

So my message to UK policy makers on international students is clear. Do what you feel you need to do to ensure that the students we introduce are genuine, but do not throw the international education baby out with the immigration bath water. If we get this balance right, we will preserve the UK’s reputation for excellence in higher education without endangering the flows of international students which underpin it, ensuring better education for a better world for all who seek it.

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