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Beyond the Balance Sheet: Tracing the Evolution of UK Universities’ Internationalisation Over 40 Years

  • 21 May 2024
  • By Vincenzo Raimo
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Vincenzo Raimo. Vincenzo is an independent international higher education consultant and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Reading where he was previously Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement.
  • HEPI has recently published research on the impact of the Graduate Route visa with Kaplan, the National Union of Students and London Economics: you can read it here.

Since the 1980s, the landscape of higher education in the UK has undergone significant transformation, with the internationalisation of universities emerging as a central theme. This evolution, particularly in the context of international student recruitment, is often viewed through the lens of financial necessity and strategic financial planning. Yet, this perspective is part of a multifaceted narrative that encompasses academic excellence, cultural enrichment, and global engagement. This post delves into some of the complexities of UK universities’ internationalisation strategies over the past four decades, highlighting the interplay between financial imperatives and broader educational goals.

As explored in my previous post, Navigating the Waves: Key Strategies for International Student Recruitment Success, the recruitment of international students has long served as a critical financial lifeline for institutions navigating the complexities of reduced government funding and increased global competition. The earlier blog provides a series of institutional success factors behind international student recruitment, laying the groundwork for this broader exploration of internationalisation strategies. Understanding these foundational elements is essential for grasping the multifaceted nature of the challenges and opportunities UK universities face today in their internationalisation efforts.

A Financial Turning Point

The shift began in the early 1980s, under the Thatcher government, which aimed to reduce public spending on higher education. International students, previously beneficiaries of substantial subsidies, were required to pay so-called “full-cost” tuition fees, marking the start of a strategic financial model centred on international student recruitment to offset reduced government funding.

This policy shift towards the marketisation of higher education transformed the academic landscape, viewing education as a premium product on the international market. The approach had a dual impact: while bolstering financial resources, it also prompted a re-evaluation of the role and value of international students within the UK’s academic fabric.

Beyond the Balance Sheet

While the financial narrative is compelling, the internationalisation of UK universities is not a story of finance alone. The recruitment of international students brought about a wealth of academic and cultural benefits, fostering vibrant and diverse academic communities. International students brought new perspectives to classrooms and campuses, enriching the educational experience and fostering a global outlook among that proportion of the domestic student population open to benefiting from this international environment on their doorsteps.

The global reputation of UK universities became a crucial asset in a competitive international market. Attracting top talent, whether students or faculty, and establishing robust global research partnerships, enhanced the quality and impact of UK higher education. Internationalisation was not just about filling lecture theatres but about elevating the stature and reach of UK institutions on the world stage.

The Strategic Imperative of Internationalisation

Internationalisation strategies evolved to encompass far more than student recruitment. Universities began to focus on enhancing the international student experience, offering targeted support services, and engaging in global research collaborations. These efforts were aimed at not only attracting students but also retaining them and ensuring their success, which in turn, fed back into the universities’ global reputation and competitiveness.

Strategic partnerships and overseas campuses emerged as key components of internationalisation strategies, extending the reach of UK universities and offering them a foothold in emerging markets. These initiatives allowed universities to offer a UK education to students who might not have the means or desire to travel abroad, further expanding their international influence.

The Future of Internationalisation

Looking to the future, UK universities face both opportunities and challenges in their ongoing internationalisation efforts. Government policies and global mobility trends will continue to influence the flow of international students. The UK’s post-Brexit immigration policies, such as the reintroduction of the Graduate Route visa and allowing non-sponsored PGT international students to be accompanied by dependents, helped to bolster international student demand and saw many UK universities enrol more international students than they had planned for, or finance directors could have hoped for. Last year’s reversal of the dependents’ policy for non-sponsored PGT students and a return to a less welcoming environment from the UK Government has resulted in a dramatic downturn in demand, a return to pre-Covid growth assumptions and a new mismatch in many universities between planned spend and tuition fee revenues.

At the same time, competition is intensifying with universities in both traditional and newer international student recruiting countries vying for the same global student population. UK universities will need to innovate and adapt their strategies to remain competitive, focusing on the quality of education and the overall student experience.

Transnational Education (TNE) is once again on the university agenda, seen as offering an avenue for navigating the challenges of physical and policy barriers, allowing UK universities to deliver education directly in students’ home countries. TNE can also serve as a platform for deeper international engagement, facilitating global research collaborations and cultural exchanges that enrich the academic community both at home and abroad. But direct financial returns from TNE to the home campuses can be hard to realise, at least in the short term.

A Call to Action: Sustainable Internationalisation

This moment calls for a strategic re-evaluation of internationalisation strategies built upon international student recruitment.  UK universities must embrace a vision that extends beyond the immediate allure of financial gains, recognising the comprehensive value international students bring to the academic and cultural fabric of the UK. This necessitates:

  • Strategic Adaptability: Crafting flexible strategies that can swiftly adapt to global and domestic policy changes, ensuring the resilience and sustainability of international recruitment.
  • Acknowledging Comprehensive Benefits: Beyond financial contributions, the broader impacts of internationalisation—academic enrichment, cultural diversity, and global engagement—must be at the forefront of strategic planning.
  • Enhanced Support for International Students: Elevating the international student experience through targeted support services, fostering academic success, and ensuring their integration into the campus community.
  • Advocacy for Supportive Policies: Engaging with policymakers to advocate for a stable, welcoming environment for international students, reflecting the long-term benefits of internationalisation.
  • Promotion and Explanation Strategies: Promoting and explaining what universities do and the benefits they and their international staff and students provide to the wider communities in which they are located.

Conclusion: Forging a Sustainable Path Forward

The journey of internationalisation for UK universities underscores a complex interplay of financial necessity, strategic adaptation, and a commitment to academic and cultural enrichment. As UK higher education institutions navigate the evolving landscape of global higher education, the imperative to adopt a balanced, sustainable approach to international student recruitment has never been more critical.

The future of internationalisation demands strategies that are not only responsive to immediate financial pressures but also committed to the long-term enrichment of the global academic community. By fostering an environment that values the diverse contributions of international students, UK universities can continue to thrive as centres of global education excellence, shaping an inclusive, innovative, and interconnected future for higher education.

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  1. Richard Meredith says:

    “Enhanced Support for International Students: Elevating the international student experience through targeted support services, fostering academic success, and ensuring their integration into the campus community.”. Thus always conflicts with the financial purpose of internationalisation and is treated as a avoidable cost.

  2. Emma Hunstone says:

    For God’s sake. I’m sick to death of hearing the rhetoric. We should be encouraging and growing our own kids. We should be supporting them with enhanced support. I have twin girls hoping to go this Autumn. Both will come out with between 40 to 50ks worth of debt to take them into a future of demanding work and inability to get on the property ladder. The uk higher education system is letting our children down. I’m just waiting for the next rise in domestic fees to top everything off.

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