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Focus on quality to reach long-term targets, UK HE told

UK international education may find itself ahead of traditional competitors as a result of the global health pandemic, but the sector faces long-term challenges from new study hubs as the country fashions a new role in Europe, the British Council has suggested.

A lot of East Asian student are waiting until around the Lunar New Year in February to decide whether to travel to the UK for the January intake, the British Council predicted. Photo: unsplash

While the UK is "in a very advantageous position", the question remains around how long that will persist

While surveys suggest that international students have concerns around Covid-19 safety and health issues, UK education must focus on continuing to provide quality to ensure its long-term sustainability.

“What we hear from [UK] universities is that enrolments, by and large, look fairly good”

“It is difficult to look beyond covid at the moment because if people don’t find a way of managing covid they won’t survive in order to have a long-term strategy,” explained British Council’s director – Education Maddalaine Ansell at the International Education Services Virtual Festival.

“Having said that, I think in the longer term, increased competition and increased competition from so many more competitors than there used to be, [will require] UK universities… to make sure that we’re on the cutting edge of what we offer international students,” she said.

Key focus areas should include blended offering, digital options that are “truly immersive and student centred alongside all the really crucial face-to-face elements of education and the cultural aspects”.

“We weren’t seen as handling the crisis well a few months ago, but actually in the long run, that won’t be as important as the quality of our educational offerings going forward,” Ansell said.

“What we hear from [UK] universities is that enrolments, by and large, look fairly good,” said Matt Durnin, British Council’s Global Head of Insights & Consultancy. However, there is a short-term risk and uncertainty around students continuing to delay travel plans, which may result in a rise in cancellations or deferrals, he continued.

“A lot of [institutions are pinning] hopes on the January intake. We think – particularly for East Asia – a lot of these students are waiting until around the Lunar New Year, which is the second week of February, to make a final decision on whether they will travel,” he noted.

“If we don’t see a large number of students coming across around that time, we suspect there will be a significant rise in deferrals and cancellations.”

In a world of functioning vaccines and reduced Covid-19 health risk, “we’re going to go back to all of the challenges that were facing before”, Ansell continued.

“The UK is “probably the least bad”of major study destinations for the time being”

The UK’s “historically strong reputation for fabulous international education” is facing more competition from traditional competitors including the US, Australia and Canada, but also regional hubs – China, Hong Kong, Singapore.

“The fact that China is not only building its domestic capacity, but also seeking to be a regional hub is really interesting,” Ansell highlighted.

Its Belt and Road Initiative is strengthening relationships with African countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, she said.

However, with the UK’s reintroduction of a “strong” post study work along with traditional destinations “facing significant headwinds and challenges”, the UK is “probably the least bad” of major study destinations for the time being, Durnin added.

In the US government rhetoric and national policy changes have steered students away, and border closures in Australia have limited the respective sectors.

“In Canada, which initially looked best positioned to welcome students, there have been huge delays in visa issuance. [This has] been a barrier to recovery there,” he said.

Managing director of the Economist Intelligence Unit Robin Bew agreed, suggesting that the UK “hasn’t done a great job with coronavirus”, but is attempting to manage relations with China “perhaps a bit less aggressively” than countries such as Australia and US.

“The ability to maintain these geopolitical relations with China… [is] going to be important,” he said.

It is unclear how long the UK will maintain its current “very advantageous position”, Durnin reminded.

“It only takes some changes in the in the border restriction policies and other visa policies of the major competitor countries for that to change very quickly.”

“Young people in certain countries, might affect the desire of people to come here”

The UK must also carve a new role in Europe, with British Council chairman Stevie Springs CBE saying that the organisation “still has a very, very, very big role to play” to ensure the continent, as well as the wider world, is open for students.

The key challenges of Brexit are increased tuition fees for undergraduate students from EU and potential visa difficulties, Ansell stated.

“That, coupled with perhaps a residual negative feeling towards the UK from young people in certain countries, might affect the desire of people to come here,” she explained.

The sector will need to work with UKVI to create a visa application process as smooth as possible, she added.

Although “most of the sector would have preferred us to have associated to Erasmus+”, the Turing scheme is good news for outbound mobility, and the association to Horizon Europe – which needs to pass through the European Parliament – was “really, really” positive news, Ansell noted.

While details need to be ironed out, “we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth too early,” Springs noted.

“We should take some time to celebrate the fact that we do have the basis of a replacement scheme and that we have a government that recognises the value and values inherent in international mobility and international experiences,” Springs added.

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