I’ll never forget being slightly shocked when a vice-chancellor told a London conference that the British higher education approach to Europe was to fly over it on the way to recruit the “brightest and best” international students from China, India and other faraway parts.

It was said more in jest, in that British sense of humour that blurs what you really mean to say with a bit of fun, but the remark from pre-Brexit days stuck in my mind.

And despite the UK higher education establishment figures falling over themselves to demonstrate their pre-EU credentials in the Brexit referendum, I think it neatly summed how those in UK government and university circles really felt about the internationalisation of higher education.

Fine to work with top European scientists and have a good sprinkling of academics from abroad to teach foreign languages and on engineering courses, but when it comes to students, what was important was recruiting as many non-EU international students as possible.

The economics couldn’t be argued with! Non-EU students paid eye-watering fees without complaint and subsidised UK university research, while EU students were treated like home students and often didn’t earn enough as graduates to repay their UK state-backed loans.

From trail separation to Brexit divorce

Now that Brexit process has moved from trial separation during the transition period to full divorce, the UK government can show its hand and put some meat on the bone of its International Education Strategy, or IES.

The revised strategy appears more open to the world, undoing damage caused by previous prime minister Theresa May, and her ally Amber Rudd, who advocated a hostile environment to foreigners during their stints in the Home Office.

“Priority countries”

But when the UK says the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean everywhere! For the revised IES lists a set of “priority countries” –  India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria – where UK government has identified the best education export opportunities.

Like Australia, the UK is waking up to the stark reality that recruiting vast numbers of students from China means putting too many eggs in one basket.

And do Chinese students really want to pay a small fortune to travel across the globe to study business studies in a class full of mainly other Chinese students?

Like Australia, it also realises that standing up to China over human rights, or whatever, comes with risks. 

Students could be “advised” to study at home at China’s rapidly improving universities or avoid countries where the Chinese are not welcome. That would cripple many universities that rely on sky-high fees from international students.

Old certainties don’t apply 

Image from UK revised International Education Strategy

And the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted international student mobility beyond recognition and the old certainties no longer apply.

So, although the revised International Education Strategy says little totally new or surprising, it does set the direction of travel the government wants UK universities to take over the next decade.

The two key goals to achieve by 2030 are:

  • an increase of education exports to £35 billion a year
  • at least 600,000 international higher education studying in the UK

And, they look feasible! For despite an expected short-term drop in physical student mobility to the UK until the coronavirus crisis is sorted and the repercussions of Brexit on student numbers from the remaining EU 27, UK international higher education is in quite good shape.

The number of international students enrolled at UK students last year grew to around 560,000. That represented a 12% boost, after numbers flat-lined for several years, and they more than doubled from India. The more flexible post-graduate route into employment opportunities has clearly made the right impression.

European relations going downhill

But relations with “our friends and neighbours” in the EU are going downhill.

While Britain’s research community was relieved that the UK agreed in principle to sign up to the European Commission’s next research programme, Horizon Europe 2021-27, the UK has pulled out of the ERASMUS+ programme and will launch its own (outward) student mobility TURING programme.

The UK’s Turing mobility programme has its sight on the world, rather than just Europe, but quite how it will encourage two-way exchanges is less clear. 

Independent education consultant Dr Vicky Lewis

As independent international strategy development consultant, Dr Vicky Lewis, remarked to me: “The updated International Education Strategy has a strengthened emphasis on the international student experience, including employment outcomes, transnational education and outward mobility of UK-based students. This is very welcome.

“However, it is still at heart an education export strategy, which means that it does not address issues that are equally crucial to the UK’s ability to engage effectively with the global community, such as tackling the dramatic decline in language learning in the UK.”

Can you really have an international education strategy based on just those who speak your own language?

Growing export opportunities worldwide

And what about other important regional markets for the UK’s International Education Champion Sir Steve Smith to focus on?

These are listed as Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Europe, China and Hong Kong, where Sir Steve will be tasked to work with the British Council on growing export opportunities.

As one who has worked with European universities for the last decade, I don’t like lumping Europe together as if it was one country. Shouldn’t the UK be selecting particular markets – perhaps Italy or Germany or countries in central and Eastern Europe – where the potential for expanding opportunities is worth exploring? 

While, I understand that British higher education wants to send out positive post-Brexit signals to EU students, it doesn’t sound fair that some UK universities are considering charging EU students the same fees as British students (£9,250 in England) instead of full international tuition fees from 2021-22? How does that sound to students from the rest of the world now the UK has left the EU? And why should a rich French student pay less than a poorer student from Nigeria to study in the UK? Shouldn’t any scholarships or discounts be properly targeted and aimed at the world at large in line with the revised international education strategy?

Finally, restrictions on international travel and the digital transformation of higher education worldwide have put the spotlight on growing transnational education and expanding global education partnerships which don’t necessitate physical mobility. You don’t need to travel half-way round the world to earn a degree from a foreign university and break your family’s bank account to achieve the qualification of your dreams. 

Good luck to everyone turning the international education strategy from words into action!

Main image:British Airways

Recommended further reading

UK universities ‘weighing options’ on EU student fee discounts, John Morgan, Times Higher Education, January 6, 2021

Does UK universities’ global rhetoric match reality? My interview with Dr Vicky Lewis on her new research project into why UK universities need to rethink how they measure their global performance, University World News, 21 January 2021

International Education Strategy: 2021 update: Supporting recovery, driving growthpublished by the UK government’s Department for Education and Department for International Trade, 6 February 6 2021

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