“Where London leads, I have no doubt the rest of the country will follow,” said Chris Skidmore, former minister of state for universities, at a roundtable session in Westminster this week with leaders from 25 of London’s higher education institutions.
The event, planned by London Higher and Oxford International Education Group, featured insights from IDP Connect and Nous Group and marked the beginning of a renewed effort by stakeholders in the English capital to re-establish “brand London” in the face of strong global competition from the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
Skidmore, addressing via video link from Brussels as part of a UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, warned against the UK being too slow to set new foreign recruitment targets.
“Last year, the Department presented an update to the international education plan, confirming a commitment to meeting the milestones indicated; however, there were no new aspirations or policy innovations,” he said.
The UK national aim of 600,000 overseas students attending British institutions (and producing a £35 billion annual education export market) was met ten years ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the renewed policy lever of a post-study work visa in 2021, but also due to border closures and travel inconvenience for competing destinations during the pandemic.
“I would strongly caution against resting on our laurels; three years on, it is time to ask ourselves what a new worldwide education policy looks like,” Skidmore concluded.
“I believe that we not only need to develop a new international education strategy with revised and ambitious aims, but we should also seek to construct regional international education strategies with regional education champions to aid in their delivery.”
The role of the UK’s first international education champion, as well as the role of the Mayor of London, were highlighted as ways to lead any successful approach.
“The establishment of the powerful figure of an elected mayor of London has not only transformed democratic politics and its accountability; it has also led to deeper investment and strategic delivery of priorities that have also transformed the city for the better; I believe that there is much more that can be done to deliver across a locally devolved agenda in education,” Skidmore explained.
Acting as chair of the meeting, David Pilsbury, chief development officer at Oxford International Education Group, stated that the national parliament was “not listening” and emphasised the need for a “common vision and framework [amongst London institutions] to bring in industry support from the private sector” reflective of a world-leading study destination.
Oxford International Education Group operates one of London’s major international route centres in collaboration with the University of Greenwich. In reference to the IDP Emerging Futures survey taken by applicants and offer holders in February 2022, Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect, confirmed that the leading motivating factors for international students choosing to study in London were career development and breadth of education – in contrast to the wider UK picture, where educational quality was ranked higher as a priority.
“When we slice the data by students only interested in London, we see that educational options, the diversity of the offering in the city of London, is a key motivating factor,” Emmett explained, positioning a London-wide recruitment plan as a sensible way to meet this expectation as a united, yet diverse offering.
“A London international education strategy would also help the London HE sector to unify its attention around shared priorities and difficulties,” Skidmore stated. As a first step, I would propose that London reverse the trend of losing market share in international enrolments to the rest of the UK.”
Such an assessment was supported by application data gathered by Matthew Durnin, principal at Nous Group, which revealed that the number of international students enrolling in taught postgraduate courses in the UK in 2021 was higher outside of London, owing to the recruitment success and impressive growth of regional teaching-focused universities. Durnin also emphasised China and India’s dominance as major global source markets for international students to all study destinations – “everyone asks me who the next China will be?” There is no new China, other than India.”
During the event, university stakeholders highlighted worries about diversity and recruiting new branch campuses to the capital in an already competitive market. They also stressed the need to integrate broader themes such as TNE, sustainability, student experience, and graduate employability rather than just global share growth.
Emmett also demonstrated low student satisfaction levels for London universities on the WhatUni website, with no London university ranking among the top twenty satisfaction scores prior to the pandemic in 2019. Emmett also noted, citing the IDP Emerging Futures report, that just 38% of IDP students polled who had applied to the UK in 2021 had made the UK their first option.
According to the PIE News, the Australian higher education sector is on its way to a “complete recovery” as a result of pent-up demand. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have all made significant investments in aggressive destination marketing online and offline in key source markets, frequently cooperating as geographical regions, states, or territories. Examples like Study NSW and Study in Scotland show how a devolved, regional destination marketing approach compares to a single institution programme, with the goal of leveraging London’s own “brand via a regional lens.”
Another important problem for the UK is its reliance on China, with London considered the only UK city long-term capable of matching the size of a tier-one Chinese city.
“The reliance of London’s large research-intensive universities on recruiting from a country with a declared objective of becoming a net importer of globally mobile students poses a future difficulty,” Skidmore added.
“Is there not therefore a chance for engagement across the London HE ecosystem with Shanghai or the broader Bay area or other [similar] major urban centers around the world?” he asked.
With the present political agenda in the UK focused on equalising social and economic opportunities across the country, the prospect of a London-centric international approach may worry those in the sector. Moreover, there is a growing consensus that UK universities should follow the lead of their international competitors by forming closer regional alliances, emphasising “place” as part of their combined appeal, and developing collaborative policies on local resources such as accommodation and transportation to increase capacity.
London Higher, the representative group for over forty London universities and higher education colleges, will coordinate the discussion on what a future London international education plan would look like, with a launch expected early in the next academic year.
“It’s my duty now to cut through the exciting argument and come to the practicalities of what we can achieve,” said Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher. “The current administration has a leveling-up ambition, but it can’t do the international education agenda without London.”
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