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“Separate politics from education”, sector told at PIE Live 2022

Almost 500 delegates gathered in London to discuss the future of international education earlier this week at The PIE Live – Leaders in International Education, the PIE’s two-day conference.

International education professionals gathered in London to discuss the shape and future of the sector. Photo: Roger Harris

54% of attendees expressed concern about “the future shape of the international office”

The in-person event, which ran March 21- 22, opened with a discussion about the shape of the sector, hosted by Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International. Stern argued that the sector “refuses to be complacent” in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic and Brexit

The panel were optimistic about the future of international education, with Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent Higher Education, describing the sector as “resilient”, while Gwen Williams, assistant director at Universities Wales, said the organisation was seeing an “unprecedented investment” in international education.

However, Yinbo Yu, head of engagement and partnerships at UK Council for International Student Affairs, argued that more needed to be done to improve the experience of international students in the UK and called on his colleagues to understand the experience of students who haven’t been “blown away” by their time in the country. 

Later in the day, learners had a chance to voice their own opinions at one of the most popular sessions of the event, the international student roundtable. Students shared their experiences of learning during the pandemic, with some feeding back that they thought they had “missed out”, while others felt like they didn’t belong to their institutions as a result of online learning. The students also shared their concerns about money and employability, with one student sharing that they had applied to over 500 jobs. 

The war in Ukraine was on everybody’s minds, as Suzanna Tomassi, higher education specialist at the Department of International Trade, confirmed that the UK government has no intention to tell the sector to withdraw from Russia or end relations with the country, but would instead leave institutions to make their own decisions. 

“I could give up on everything, but not my education”

In a moving speech at the PIE’s 10th anniversary dinner on Tuesday evening, Sharif Safi, a Chevening scholar from Afghanistan, urged guests to “be kind” to both Ukrainian and Russian students, calling on the sector to “separate politics from education”. 

“If we bump into Ukrainian students, or there are Ukrainian students in our universities, let’s just be kind to them,” Safi said, “because I have been in their shoes six months ago when I left my country. I was traumatised. I still am worrying about my family.” 

Safi fled Afghanistan 10 days after the Taliban seized control of the country, moving to the UK to study at London Metropolitan University. “I could give up on everything, but not my education,” he said, adding that he is “here because of the wonderful work that you have been carrying out, that has made education in the UK one of the world’s best educations”. 

The future of technology within international education was discussed repeatedly across the two days. Steve Grubbs, CEO and co-founder of VictoryXR, shared his vision of education in the metaverse explaining that some universities already have twin “metaversities” to accommodate blended education.

Meanwhile, representatives from Nexford University, Minerva, TEDI London and UA92 shared how their organisations are shaking up traditional education, from offering flexible degree programs to low-cost online courses. 

L.E.K. Consulting presented research into how far online education will disrupt traditional education in the long-term, saying its results were “mixed”.  Although online and non-traditional education is attractive to older students, the consultants concluded that it is unlikely to disrupt “bricks and mortar” education as long as traditional institutions continue to “provide good outcomes”. 

The conference concluded with a solutions room, where participants could share challenges they are facing and seek support from their peers. Some 54% of attendees expressed concern about “the future shape of the international office”, with participants sharing concerns that they need additional training as the role increasingly relies on digital and social media skills.

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