Despite the optimistic reaction to the UK government’s International Education strategy from most commentators, the new policy paper should be seen as just the first step to prepare Britain to compete successfully for a greater share of international students in the new world order.
The mood music is starting to change as the UK government finally wakes up to the need to end the anti-foreigner tone to how Great Britain has been projecting itself to the world since the referendum produced a narrow majority in favour of leaving the European Union.
For those responsible for the “hostile environment” campaign, including Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, and former Prime Minister David Cameron, who constantly moaned about the EU in the years leading up to his ill-fated Brexit referendum, have encouraged an unhealthy view of foreigners living in our midst.
The Windrush scandal and the majority in favour of pulling up the drawbridge to Europe were just two of the most damaging results of this “Little Englander’ mentality – which has emboldened those with racist and anti-immigrant views to speak-out in public and on social media without second thoughts.
The result is that the steady rise in the number of international students coming to the UK to study and foreign workers, whether plumbers from Poland or nurses from South East Asia, has slowed or been thrown into reverse in some cases.
So despite its limitations, we should see the ‘International Education strategy: global potential, global growth’ policy paper produced jointly by the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade as a breath of fresh air!
Lull in Brexit posturing
The timing of the strategy’s release – on Saturday morning 16 March – was interesting. Perhaps the government wanted to use a lull in pre-Brexit posturing in Parliament to project a more positive image to the world.
If so, there’s nothing wrong in that, even if much of the strategy’s emphasis is being driven by boosting education exports as part of the UK’s ambitions for the post-Brexit world stage, when Britain should have its own independent trade policy.
Transnational Education, or TNE, is expected to play an even more significant role and the strategy identifies four ‘high-value’ campaign regions to boost education exports and student recruitment. These regions are: China and Hong Kong; the Middle East and North Africa; Latin America and the ASEAN group of South East Asian nations.
Europe, it should be noted doesn’t get much of a mention, although the strategy does recall that a previous white paper on future relations between the UK and the EU as saying: “We are open to exploring participation in the successor scheme to the current Erasmus+ programme.”
Longer to find post-study work
Media coverage to the international education strategy was encouraging, even if The Guardian’s report was a little over-the-top in saying the new measures will allow international students to seek employment for up to a year.
That only applies to doctoral students!
First degree and master’s students will have six months to find skilled work after graduation – but that is up from the four months post-study period currently available.
UK still behind rivals
That still leaves the UK far behind our main rivals when it comes to post-study work visas for internationally mobile students. Canada offers up to three years; while depending on the level of study Australia offers between two and four years for graduates to find suitable employment. Germany offers up to 18 months and the USA offers its international students 12 months, with a two years extension for STEM graduates wanting to work in jobs related to their field of study.
Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK (the Vice-Chancellors’ lobby group), commented that while publication of the strategy signalled a change in direction, she wanted the British government to go further and extend post-study work opportunities to “at least two years”.
Can the Home Office come on board?
That is going to be a big ask unless the Home Office can be brought on board and the UK government drops the Cameron-May target of reducing net migration to under 100,000-a-year.
At the very least the British government needs to stop counting international students as immigrants. Instead it should put up a big welcome sign, so the world’s skilled and talented people can believe once again that we really want them to study and work in the UK.
In her response Janet Beer, like most commentators, congratulated the government on “the ambitious target to grow the number of international students to 600,000 by 2030.”
This is a significant development and puts a statistical target in place for UK Higher Education to aim for. It follows international student recruitment targets in a string of countries, including Australia’s aim of having 700,000 international students by 2025 and Canada’s target of 450,000 by 2022.
Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, reflected that the UK international education strategy was aiming for a 75% rise in education exports, with only a 33% increase in international students.
This equates to a 3.3% annual growth while the world’s globally mobile student numbers had grown by 5.5% over the past five years.
So, the UK target may not be as ambitious as it might first appear and the 600,000 figure is not due to be reached until 2030, when – as others have pointed out – we will probably see a different government and the ministers responsible for setting the target are all happily retired from politics!
Still, as I say, it is a positive first step and a welcome change of tune in the mood music towards foreigners coming to work and study in the UK. And not before time!