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UK must “avoid complacency” as global competition resumes

The UK government has said it recognises the need to “avoid complacency” when it comes to the country’s international education strategy, as competing markets reopen their borders. 

The UK government has published its latest progress update on the country's international education strategy. Photo: Unsplash.

Stakeholders welcomed the progress but agreed that the country cannot rest on its laurels

In its latest progress update, jointly published on May 25 by the Department for International Trade and the Department for Education, the government says it has made “positive progress” against its two key ambitions. 

The first of these, set out in the original strategy launched in 2019, was a target of 600,000 international higher education students in the UK – the country reached this in the 2020-21 academic year, 10 years ahead of the goal date. 

The second was to increase education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030. In 2019 (the latest data available) this was worth an estimated £25bn, an 8% increase since 2018.

But the update also highlights areas of concern as the effects of the pandemic continue to play out and the report recognises that some sub-sectors are “disproportionately affected”. 

Last week the English language teaching sector announced a 88% drop in student numbers in 2021, compared to pre-covid levels. 

In its 2019 progress update, the government committed to supporting ELT by informing language schools of global opportunities and promoting them overseas. 

The government now says it has taken actions including backing English UK’s #EnglishWithConfidence campaign, which aims to aid market recovery, and providing £600,000 of funding to the membership body’s PRELIM project, which created partnerships between English UK members and national English teacher associations globally. 

The report also warns that global competition is increasing as markets reopen following the lifting of travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

“Achieving sustainable growth over the next decade will require us to think more strategically”

Australia’s international borders have been open since February, while New Zealand earlier this month announced that international education would fully resume on July 31, two months ahead of schedule. 

Stakeholders from the sector welcomed the progress outlined in the UK’s report but agreed that the country cannot rest on its laurels. 

“We can all celebrate the UK’s success in meeting one of the key targets 10 years early, but achieving sustainable growth over the next decade will require us to think more strategically about the evolving needs of students and the global economy,” said Alex Proudfoot, CEO at Independent Higher Education

Ensuring education exports come from a “diversified base” is a priority, the government said in the report. 

Proudfoot told The PIE News that the UK has “the chance to be a world leader not just in traditional higher education but in shorter, more flexible courses of technical and professional education which are designed to meet skills needs and support specific growth industries”.

However, he says these courses need support “through visa rules and targeted help for SMEs”. 

“We need to redouble efforts to ensure that the UK remains a destination of choice for students”

Similarly, Jamie Arrowsmith, assistant director of policy and global engagement at Universities UK International, said that the organisation is “pleased” that the international student target has been reached but that “there is more we need to do if we are to build on this success”.

“As a sector we need to redouble efforts to ensure that the UK remains a destination of choice for students, focusing on the international student experience and supporting our graduates into great careers,” Arrowsmith said. 

The government committed in its 2021 update on the strategy to improve the academic experience and employability of international students, working with the UK Council for International Student Affairs, among others, to do so. 

The report refers to the improvement of the student journey as one of its “significant achievements”, specifically highlighting the February launch of Myriad by UCAS, a platform for international postgraduate students, and the recent call for evidence by the Office for Students in order to review existing practice on the international student experience. 

Other listed achievements include the funding of exchange opportunities for 41,000 students under the Turing Scheme, which replaced the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme. 

Almost half of the students taking part in the Turing Scheme were from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the report. 

It also points to the launch of the new graduate route in 2021 which it says has created a “more streamlined experience for international students”. 

Both the introduction of the new graduate route and the Turing Scheme were highlighted in the government’s 2021 update.

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