Diversifying regions for student recruitment, looking to emerging markets including Europe, and handling China were some of the key topics highlighted at the two-day event.
Senior analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit John Marrett highlighted that the short-term economic impact of the pandemic is “actually quite bright”.
“Middle class houses are not coming out of this crisis feeling poorer, in fact, they’re feeling considerably richer in some cases,” he said.
“Despite the pandemic and all the destruction, the rapid economic recession that it caused last year, [there are] still very positive prospects for 2021 to the next two years ahead.”
However, the medium-term three to five year outlook is “much bleaker”.
Crimping investment will slow growth via investments in many countries, especially in emerging markets, and will result in slowed expansion of the middle class population – the “key target demographic for overseas higher education consumption” – Marrett suggested.
“The potential number of UK foreign students will be hit by this crisis in the medium term,” he said.
While some economies in America and the Middle East will be buoyed by high commodity prices, Marrett emphasised that “Asia in particular will see a slowing trend”.
While Vietnam and the Philippines are “major potential sources of growth”, “China is slowing and this pandemic and its after-effects will only add to that impact”, he added.
President & vice-chancellor of Cardiff University Colin Riordan highlighted that Vietnam has already been a Welsh government priority for international education for the past few years.
“I regard [Europe] as an emerging market because it’s completely different from where from where we were before,” he said, adding that China will “remain really critical”.
“China is going to be our biggest market. It’s not going to go from being pretty much half the sector to, you know, much less than that any time soon,” he said.
Also speaking at the event, international education champion Steve Smith agreed China will “remain an absolutely major market”.
“But I think over-reliance on any market would be the issue,” he said. “No one is going to suggest that we turn our back on China – that would be crazy in an international world of education and research.”
The sector is dealing with ethical issues around dealing with China, Steve Smith continued.
“To say [ethical issues] are uppermost in our minds is an understatement.
“If one is worried about some of the ethical issues about the governments were involved in, then ultimately I think we have to start believing in the transformative power of education and enquiry in science.”
However, China will not be the key market for international student number growth.
“Other areas will grow more. Look at the increase in Indian numbers went from 25,000 to 55,000 in the last year,” Smith said.
The over-reliance on China, especially at postgraduate level, has been recognised as a risk in terms of both student experience and “putting all our financial eggs in one geopolitically fragile basket”, Vicky Lewis, founder and director of Vicky Lewis Consulting added.
“Emerging economies certainly hold the key to long term sustainable diversification”
“There’s a current risk that we kind of hold off on diversification because of financial constraints, because China is recovering well, etc, but it would be very shortsighted not to engage with the emerging economies,” she said. “The emerging economies certainly hold the key to long term sustainable diversification.”
“We still are depending on a small number of countries, China and India, for instance, for our international students and our higher education sector financially is driven very much by the income of international students. That is, I think, not realistic,” said Hans de Wit, professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Center for International Higher Education.
“The mid-term of the medium term impact on international student recruitment might be hit seriously, with some exceptions maybe, but also the other aspects of geopolitical tensions, racism etc the need for climate change, but also have an impact. And we have to be aware that that is happening. But you also have to change our way of thinking about it.”
Lewis also urged institutions to instate “well-thought through regional strategies for Europe”.
UUKi director Vivienne Stern called on UK universities to engage in a coordinated approach to implement the vision and achieve the objectives of the country’s international education strategy.
“We’ve got this opportunity to make sure the strategy isn’t a document that sits on the shelf, but it’s a process – it’s a project that we’re all really engaged in,” she said.
To be effective, the sector has to “make sure that the government know what’s standing in our way”, she added.
Higher education specialist at the Department for International Trade Aisling Conboy also highlighted opportunities the sector could gain from trade agreements.
“There’s so many different sectors competing to have some kind of space in the negotiations and to have their mandate put forward by government,” she said. “Ultimately it will be up to negotiators to decide what to put in there, but I think it’s really, really important that you put it in at least.”
Via the Education Sector Advisory Group – whose members include UUKi, and representatives from international schools, education suppliers, colleges and English language providers, ministers and various government departments – the sector can “pitch together” to priorities key areas to government, Stern continued. And it is looking to reframing Europe as a region.
“Europe as a region matters in the international education strategy”
“Europe as a region matters in the international education strategy,” Stern said. “It matters for political reasons, because we are all about diversification at the moment and particularly trying to avoid over-reliance on one particular country as a source country for international students.
“It matters economically because in each of the parts of the education sector, and this is one of our biggest markets and it matters strategically for the UK because… it’s part of our home turf when it comes to our diplomatic influence around the world,” she said.
“We’ve got a mechanism to escalate those things that are really important, but also to say we have to prioritise and we have to take to government things that they can do something about.”