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What did 2013 mean for international education in the UK?

It has been an eventful year for the UK’s relationship with the international education sector, characterised by a number of government measures that could both increase and arrest the flow of international students to Britain.

At the council's first meeting a number of areas were discussed including TNE, UK outward student mobility, education technology, visa policy, relationships with China

Simultaneous to some of the thornier announcements, such as cash bonds for ‘high risk’ visitors which were subsequently shelved, has been the UK government’s stated ambition to access large-scale education opportunities abroad, via a new Industrial Strategy that includes in its aims growing international student numbers by 15-20% in five years.

In July, the new Education UK unit was announced by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) to address this aim. In August the unit announced the appointment of Emily Ashwell as the its managing director.

Ashwell was formerly a director at global investment bank Canaccord Genuity where she focused on funding opportunities in international education.

Her team of 10, including civil servants, secondees from the British Council, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and from the Skills Funding Agency, is based out of BIS on 1 Victoria Street. Rather than make new policy, their remit is to “facilitate and co-ordinate with the UK education sector and liaise with UKTI and FCO overseas.”

Among Ashwell’s first duties was to rename the unit UKTI Education, with Education UK proving confusing because of the British Council’s international student website of the same name. With the necessary branding tweaked, Ashwell was free to get on with the business of securing contracts worth £3 billion by 2020.

“We are here to help UK providers focus on bigger opportunities in emerging economies, from universities downwards,” she explains. “The opportunities out there have a scale and complexity to them that requires putting together a number of organisations together with a range of capabilities and expertise to provide a comprehensive response.”

The practical application of this response is to be felt primarily over four main geographical areas: Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Mexico and Kazakhstan. The main sectors involved are English Language Training and oil and gas training, working groups have been established from a range of representatives from these areas.

Saudi Arabia is the area where UKTI are currently most active. “There is a big tender going on run by the TVTC – the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation – in Saudi Arabia for colleges of excellence” explains Ashwell, “and we have held series of meetings with bidders about what to include in bids, how work together, how to pool resources with companies with range of different capabilities; all providing a joined up element to UK bids that UKTI and ministers can support.”

The first phase of the TVTC tender saw 10 colleges up for grabs, with UK providers winning 4 of them. “We supported all of them, from ministerial and government support to linking them up with UK export financing to provide the bonds required by TVTC to secure the contract.”

The second tranche will see a further 26 colleges tendered, with private providers and FE colleges looking to see a good proportion of those fall to UK bidders.

There is some overlap here with opportunities already being drilled by TVET UK, which itself opened an office in Saudi Arabia this year, because of real demand for UK skills & training needs in the country.

As for the other regions, it is described as “early days”. Developments in Colombia may follow on from the visit by Secretary of State, David Willetts to the Antioquia province earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, the recent Inter Governmental Commission between the UK and Kazakhstan, that took place at the end of October at the FCO, is aimed at  “providing a senior government to government dialogue for stronger business engagement”. The FCO further states that: “UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) continues to lead a High Value Opportunity campaign to develop oil & gas contracts for businesses.”

What this translates as is more ELT and oil & gas training opportunities, and UKTI Education has already started laying the groundwork with “various state organisations in Kazakhstan”.

As far as linking in with pre-established initiatives such as the ‘Education is GREAT’ campaign, which has a large reach in terms of national markets, Ashwell says that there might be cross-over if it overlaps countries of interest but that it is “not something we have exclusive use of.”

(The GREAT campaign secured additional funding in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, a further £90 million over the next two years.)

Nonetheless, there is certainly autonomy when it comes to other trade missions as UKTI has taken over funding for them. “Part of what we are doing is thinking how think like missions can support that for target markets. UKTI Education can offer broad support for that, including programmes to access trade shows, and other support and grants.”

In addition to her role at UKTI Education, Ashwell is a member of the new International Education Council, established at the end of July this year. [more>]

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