In recent years, the UK has been in a “privileged position” with a “covetous” government implementing a strategy that includes targets for 600,000 students and a value of £35bn, as well as opening up the path to postgraduate work, says Lil Bremermann-Richard, chief executive of Oxford International.
“We’ve seen the influx of students and then we have the other side, now the post-Brexit hangover and post-Covid, as I would call it, we’ll see what we do. “the environment,” she said at PIE Live Europe in London.
“The government says we have to limit migration,” she said, and international students are seen as something to be “controlled”.
“This rhetoric has a negative impact on resource markets”
“The government doesn’t [announced any policies], but this rhetoric has a negative impact on source markets as well as among incoming international students. I’m worried? Yes,” she explained.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has proposed cutting the graduate journey to six months from two years, and the government is reviewing the issue of dependents.
“I don’t want this to be a culture war issue,” said Kingswood MP and former universities minister Chris Skidmore, citing two specific aspects.
“One of them is this false narrative that somehow international students are displacing domestic students from being able to study at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The reality is that some of these courses would not exist if foreign students cross-subsidised them,” he said.
Institutions are acting as if relying on international students is embarrassing, he suggested, calling on universities to “lean” on evidence showing the importance students bring to UK higher education.
“We have a new department,” he said, hinting at a new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and ambitions to make the UK “an international technology powerhouse”.
“When it comes to discovery-led research, research and development in universities, it’s international student fees that cross-subsidise some of that research, and I think that’s quite important to be able to show that that’s happening,” he said.
“You cannot be a scientific powerhouse without international students.”
Folabi Obembe, president and CEO of Worldview International Group, said Nigerian students choose to come to the UK because addicts have access to jobs.
“They [realise] that education can pay for itself [if the students’ dependants work]. This helped increase the number,” he said.
UKCISA’s Anne Marie Graham said more clarity was needed on any potential policy changes, adding that those advising students were under pressure to answer questions they did not have answers to.
However, LeverageEdu founder and CEO Akshay Chaturvedi acknowledged that changes are necessary.
“If we have to give up a few things to make the perception of the sector better or clearer, I think you should do these things together from the sector [rather than somebody imposing the rules] from outside,” Chaturvedi said. “It is the responsibility of the sector to get it to the right people in government.”
Other speakers on the first day of PIE Live Europe addressed the state of the wider UK sector.
“The fact that we are still delivering this fantastic strategy is something to celebrate”
Alex Proudfoot of Independent HE noted that the UK is currently in a strong position with record numbers and “fantastic” levels of satisfaction.
“The fact that we are still delivering this fantastic strategy is worth celebrating, despite all the negative press,” he said. But he also questioned whether the £600,000 and £35bn ambitions were achievable together, with one already achieved but some £10bn short of the target.
“What that tells me is that we’re not going to achieve this target by meeting the first student number target… we’re not going to achieve the £35 billion just by increasing the number of university places,” he said. The sector is also facing capacity in the current accommodation challenge, he said.
Skidmore also asked how the £35bn target could be “sustainably achieved”.
The UK ELT sector is “bullish” and expecting a strong summer, particularly in the junior market, according to England’s UK membership director Juan Japes.
“Other countries are rolling out the red carpet for international students,” he said, pointing to Canada, Australia and other destinations in Europe.
Job opportunities for adult learners in language schools would put the UK on par with competition in Ireland and Malta, he recalled.
“If there’s one thing I’d like to see other countries have that we don’t, it’s a limited number of work rights for our long-term adult student – that will really help the market,” he said.
Colin Bell, chief executive of the Council of British International Schools, noted that recently revised education exports for 2019 were £1.5 billion higher than previously reported, which was “great news”.
“Granted, this was before the pandemic, but when it comes to how it fits in with other sectors, UK education exports are actually outstripping food and drink, pharmaceuticals and also sales of legal services. So I think there is every good reason to be cheerful,” he said.
Bremermann-Richard called for more common thinking among policymakers.
Some of the government have “messages that say we have a significant skills shortage in this country, we want the country to be the science center of the world, but others are saying ‘we don’t want talent,'” she noted.
“On the one hand you say you don’t want the talent and on the other hand you said you need the talent. There must be a conversation between the ministers.
“We have to connect the dots.