The United Kingdom achieved its International Education Strategy aim of attracting at least 600,000 international higher education students ten years ahead of schedule.
According to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the UK welcomed 152,905 students from Europe (a 3% rise over 2019/20) and 452,225 students from the rest of the world (an 11% increase over 2019/20). The notion that the UK had achieved this goal in 2020/21, an academic year that had been severely disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak, made the announcement even more astounding to some.
However, that should be viewed as a testament to the hard work of colleagues across the UK sector, as well as to the students’ courage in continuing with their studies in the midst of these kinds of unpredictability and difficulty.
It’s indeed apparent that as soon as the news of the target’s achievement surfaced, inquiries began to pour in. Amongst them is how sustainable this expansion is, how well prepared the UK was for it, and, now that the aim has been accomplished, is the UK’s International Education Strategy still relevant?
The year 2020 and 2021 were remarkable years for everyone, including student global mobility. While it is difficult to calculate, it appears likely that the increase in the UK’s numbers was caused not only by efforts taken by the UK industry and government, which should not be underestimated or undervalued but also by activities made by other governments and sectors throughout the world.
In simple terms, the UK remained open to overseas students during the critical conversion periods of spring and autumn 2020 in a way that other destinations did not.
This, along with a few other critical factors such as the sharp drop in EU applications and acceptances reported by UCAS for the current academic year, as well as some indications of cooling demand from China noticeable in both HESA and UCAS statistics, indicate that it cannot be ascertained that this level of growth will be retained.
During the next few years, the UK economy will have to deal with the issues of declining EU student interest in the UK as a study destination, as well as shifting sands of interest outside of Europe. The United Kingdom’s International Education Strategy remains critical to maintaining the long-term sustainability of this expansion.
Maintaining high-quality experiences and outcomes for international students in the midst of such expansion, particularly during a worldwide pandemic, is also critical.
Making the most of the Graduate route has been a hot topic in the industry since its inception, and the UK cannot rest on its laurels and assume that the route’s availability is adequate. The sector’s ability to deliver on this has an impact not only on the UK’s existing international students but also on the country’s future appeal as a study destination. It can be known from first-hand experience that it is a matter on which colleagues across the UK sector are working hard.
When considering the experience and outcomes of foreign students, it is crucial to examine not only the magnitude of expansion, but also the changing structure of the international student community in the UK and, as a result, the developing nature of support they may need.
Many people mistake overseas students for a homogeneous group, but this is far from the case. The demographics of that group in UK institutions are changing, and in some cases, rapidly. It is critical that everyone responds to this, including the UK government, by sharing best practices and putting money and effort into this area.
Once again, the United Kingdom’s International Education Strategy, with its initiatives pertaining to international student engagement and graduate employability, is an extremely relevant and crucial mechanism through which to channel this critical coordinated responsibility.
Therefore, while the UK has reached one of the goals outlined in its International Education Strategy, it is far from the end of the road. It is now more important than ever for the UK to focus on the student and graduate experience for students who have decided to study in the UK.