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UK: government values ed exports but concedes data is limited

A report by the UK government reveals educational exports and transnational education are worth nearly £19bn to the UK economy annually. The most profitable part of the sector is HE exports, which including TNE, earned the UK economy nearly £13bn alone in 2014.

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Revenue from HE TNE grew by an estimated 56% between 2010 and 2014, the report says. Photo: wikicommons/Azreey.

The growth in exports has been boosted by non-EU student income, which rose between 2010 and 2014 to £8.5bn

The document produced by the Department for Education examined revenues from the international education sector between 2010 and 2014, however it concedes that data sources are incomplete, suggesting the value of the field could be even greater.

Data is lacking to accurately measure exports from alternative providers; income from EU students attending further education colleges; income from online education-related courses; and fees collected from visas granted to individuals coming to the UK from outside the EU for the purposes of study, the report says.

“One may consider the actual revenue of higher education TNE activities to be between £2.75bn and £3.7bn”

“These estimates are experimental statistics since they are still to be fully developed and rigorously tested to ensure they meet the required standard for national statistics,” the report reads. “This is because the data used to compile these estimates come from multiple sources, some with varying quality or limited coverage.”

Nottingham Trent University lecturer Vangelis Tsiligiris told The PIE News that while the report improves the understanding of international education sector’s worth, he agrees it is far from perfect.

“Overall, the study is a step towards the right direction, but it is still far from being an accurate estimation of the value of TNE,” he said.

“The solution to the problems of data and value estimation for TNE, and HE exports in general, is the availability of data from the HEIs’ end,” Tsiligiris added.

Revenue from HE TNE grew by an estimated 56% between 2010 and 2014, which indicates a sustained improvement, according to the report.

Although the majority of TNE revenue may not return directly to UK HEIs, it does create significant value for universities, Tsiligiris argued.

“One may consider the actual revenue of higher education TNE activities to be between £2.75bn and £3.7bn,” he estimated – a significantly higher figure given in the report of only £550m from HE TNE income.

This reaction to the gap in statistical data is not the first time the UK government has been criticised for holes in accounting for the reality of international education in the UK.

Just last month the Office for Statistics Regulation, part of the UK’s independent statutory body, raised concerns over the use of the International Passenger Survey statistics to measure student migration.

Despite the gaps in data, Raegan Hiles, head of outbound mobilities programs at Universities UK International, says the report offers an important view on the impact of international education on the UK economy. 

“The updated export value of education analysis shows the vital role that international students play in our economy,” she said.

“Whether it is through international students studying here, or the degree programs that our universities offer directly in other countries, our higher education offer is critical right through from the local to the global stage,” Hiles added. 

The report shows that while the sector as a whole significantly increased in value over the four-year period in question (by around 18% using current prices), HE exports have jumped by an even more impressive figure.

At 30% growth, HE exports – meaning transactions between UK residents and non-UK residents – is identified as the driving force behind the increased value.

The growth in exports has been boosted by non-EU student income, which rose by 30% between 2010 and 2014 to £8.5bn. This figure includes tuition fees and any living costs accrued while students lived in the UK.

The second tranche boosting the sector’s growth is income from research and other contracts. Although the net amount is smaller, at £1.1bn in 2014, the increase is exponential. In the four years examined in this report, income from education contracts increased by 56%.

The updated export value of education analysis shows the vital role that international students play in our economy”

The growth highlighted by the report “makes it even clearer that we [the UK] cannot afford to be inward looking”, Hiles told The PIE News.

At a time when all public decisions in the UK are seemingly viewed through the lens of Brexit, Hiles said the report shows the vital role international students play in the country’s economy.

“Whether it is through international students studying here, or the degree programs that our universities offer directly in other countries, our higher education offer is critical right through from the local to the global stage.”

But not all sector made gains over the four years. Income from English language training (given in the UK) fell by £410m over this period.

The report suggests that fall reflects a change in the length of courses typically undertaken, and the loss therefore results from fewer living expenses and less income from tuition fees.

However this should not be taken as a reflection of the popularity of English as a second language, as the same fall is not seen in TNE English language training.

Although the figures are of a smaller scale, the income from English teaching outside of the UK increased by approximately £20m over the four years covered in the report.

The PIE News contacted the Department for Education for comment on this story, but it had not replied at time of publication.

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