De la Cour Communications NIC MITCHELL joined the The Guardian’s live chat panel on the future of international student mobility. It was a fast and furious debate with experts from within and outside the UK taking part. Here are key issues raised.

Tighter immigration controls are a hot topic for education chiefs and policy-makers – and not just in Britain, where 68 university chancellors recently pleaded with British Prime Minister David Cameron to drop the new restrictions because of the damage they will cause to international student recruitment.

So, it was natural for The Guardian’s debate on the future of international student mobility to begin by looking at some of the implications of new tighter rules on student visas and restrictions on opportunities to work in host countries after graduation.

Pat Killingley, director of a higher education of the British Council, said before the new restrictions they had predicted a slowing down of the growth in international students choosing to study in the UK citing changing demographics. But their Shape of Things to Come research – carried out before the new immigration controls the UK were announced – indicated that Australia and the UK would receive the ‘lion’s share’ of the limited numbers of additional students studying abroad.

Rasmus Åaberg, from the Erasmus Student Network, said: “There is no doubt that tighter immigration has a negative effect on higher education, not only in the UK…. and were one of the major obstacles to international student mobility.”

Steve Woodfield, a researcher in higher education policy and management at Kingston University, pointed out that previous attempts to tighten immigration controls for overseas students had led to falls in full-time degree international recruitment and swift about-turns in policy, with Australia being the most recent example.

Geoff Walters, a lecturer in management at Birkbeck University in London, feared that a decline in international student numbers, coupled with the obvious concern surrounding undergraduate numbers (because of rising tuition fees in the UK) could have considerable impact on the HE sector.

Sarah Emily Duff, postdoctoral research fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, said her postgrads were already looking at Europe and Australia because of changes to the UK higher education sector.


And Raul Choudaha, from the World Education Services in New York, said with budget cuts and increasing tuition fees, international students were looking ever more closely at the return-on-investment which they often achieved by working abroad for a few years after graduating. “At this point, the UK is at a huge competitive disadvantage in terms of its attractiveness from immigration policy perspective.”

Andy Burrow, from Foreign Students – a website dedicated to both prospective and current international students studying in the UK – said it seemed illogical to count international students within the overall immigration total in the UK when the majority returned home after studying. “It drags them into a highly politicised debate.” Steve Woodfield agreed, adding: “As well as being in illogical, it is also a very poor example of international relations.”

I pointed out that Sweden had recently learned the hard way that government intervention can have a major impact on international student recruitment with last year’s introduction of tuition fees for non-EU students leading to a 79% drop in the student enrolments from outside Europe. But I added that Sweden’s no-fees policy for EU students, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, “could make some of its universities more appealing to students from the UK”.

Tee Nadan said more students in India are now talking about going to their local universities, which are having more collaboration with UK higher education. “They do not want to spend a lot to study here with the added disadvantage of being far from home, and instead prefer (to spend) a few weeks or one semester in UK.”
 Students from Africa are also considering South Africa”, she said, adding that mainland Europe was becoming ‘quite attractive’ with the fees being much less than in the UK.

Tee told of feeling like ‘a pawn in a political game’ while studying towards her PhD as a non-EU student in the UK. “I was one of the non-EU students made to carry an ID card, which I resented enormously. I was amazed that at no point did any politician realise that I was a potential asset to the UK.

“I have already witnessed several high profile research students in Sciences and Engineering leaving UK the past 1.5 years simply to avoid the visa procedure.”

On a more positive note, Rasmus pointed out that although Europe’s 20% target the student mobility (by 2020) might not be met by certain countries (notably the UK), the Erasmus programme has increased numbers of participants steadily for 25 years.

What drives students abroad?

We then moved on to discuss what was driving students to study abroad. Rasmus said it was  “expectations of future experience” – be that career advancement or a pathway for immigration. He predicted students would expect better quality education and improved career advancement opportunities within their local regions rather than travelling to traditional destinations.

Steve Woodfield said he had recently written a report on trends and issues in mobility in a selection of European countries for the Danish Agency for International Education. He said: “European countries are learning fast about the factors influencing international student recruitment” – adding that many European countries and Australia were actively seeking to recruit more students to stay and work after their studies finished.

As for the UK, Steve thought that the best argument for changing British policy was (sadly) an economic one – with international students counting is a valuable UK export which touches every region in the UK.

Andy Burrow said: “It may be ironic that an increase in fees could actually lead to more student mobility in one direction (i.e. away from UK).

“It seems like such short-termism to recruit some of the best students in the world to study at British universities, only to all but force them out of the country after they graduate and begin to look for work.”

I pointed out that Germany was taking a more positive attitude towards both outward and inward student mobility and that the work of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) had attracted the attention of a group led by Prof Riordan, chair of the International Unit at Universities UK,  advising British universities minister David Willetts on outbound student mobility:

The UK government was finally making the right noises about encouraging more British students to study abroad, I pointed out, particularly in its response to the recent meeting of European education ministers in Bucharest which reaffirmed the 20% mobility target. “But there is a tremendous in-balance, with only around 33,000 UK students going abroad to study compared to 370,000 international students coming to the UK.”

Patrick Blessinger, Executive Director of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association, said while teaching in Denmark on the Fulbright Programme, he asked Erasmus students from all across Europe about their main motivations for studying abroad. Their responses included:

  • to experience another culture
  • to learn another language or to improve their English skills,
  • to become more “worldly” and global in their mindset
  • to expand the overall educational experience
  • to improve their prospects for a better job once they’d graduated.

Patrick said many universities wanted to enhance their reputations (and revenue streams) by expanding the ratio of international students, and many students like to attend a prestigious university, not only for the experience but also to enhance their job prospects after they graduate.

Steve Woodfield made an interesting point that the majority of mobility in more developed countries is ‘short-term exchange programmes, elsewhere most mobility is for full degrees’. However, the growth of transnational education is challenging this model. He also said ‘mobility flow’ were likely to become more volatile as more study destinations emerge like China, the UAE, Malaysia and Singapore.

Funding and fear

Lizzie Fane, founder of, a network of students who study or work abroad during their degree, said the biggest hurdles to increasing UK students’ international mobility were funding and fear. “We’re really pleased universities are becoming more flexible by enabling more students to do a Joint Honours degree by adding a language to their studies, and giving them the option of a year abroad… Employers we’ve spoken to are really keen to employ Joint Honours graduates with international experience.”

But it was important to make it easier to have the credits from another country recognised upon return to your home University.

I said we also needed to look at widening the social net that we are drawing international students from. “It is far too narrow in the UK with most of those going abroad coming from affluent backgrounds” and suggested we might learn from the comments of the Vice-Chancellor of Linköping University in Sweden, who said: “We’re looking at talent, not people with a thick wallet or rich parents. The no-fee system the Swedish students is protected by Swedish law; and European Union students are treated the same as domestic students. For us internationalisation is a matter of quality, not improving the balance sheet of the University”.

Steve Woodfield said the narrow demographics of mobile exchange student is not unique to the UK.

Looking ahead, Rahul Choudada said while China is expected to lose some of its growth momentum, India will see ‘a huge demographic dividend’ and was likely to overtake China as the major source of internationally mobile students. The number of 18 to 22-year-olds in Russia South Korea and Germany was also going to fall over the next 10 years.

All in a great debate which helped to raise awareness about the importance of international student mobility – the reason I founded De la Cour Communications.  Read the whole Guardian Higher Education Network debate at