Speaking at an International Admissions and Recruitment seminar in London on May 13, recruitment experts suggested that UK institutions should be looking at Europe in a new context, following Brexit and, for EU students, the loss of home fee status and access to UK loans.
The graduate visa route is “not really understood in the European context”, Nancy Cooke, associate director of International DevelopmentUniversity of Salford suggested at the event organised by Cambridge Assessment and Ecctis.
“How can we as institutions actually communicate what our offer is to students?” she asked. “Working in international, we’ve always had fantastic scholarship program for international students. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of communicating that out to European students.”
“We are particularly concerned at doctoral level”
To continue to find success in Europe post-Brexit, institutions should focus on three areas, she suggested.
Along with employability and funding opportunities, universities should be working with their local regions to build connections with the continent.
Former UK universities minister Chris Skidmore has also called for the establishment of regional international education strategies with regional education champions. He made the comments at an event renewing efforts to create a “brand London” for international education on May 12.
By working with regional partners, institutions can strengthen their relationships in Europe, Nancy suggested.
“For example in Greater Manchester we are quite lucky. We have the combined authority, we have a mayor, who is really keen on links internationally and in Europe. We’ve got a kind of international strategy for our region, so that actually opens up more opportunity,” she said.
A strategic partnership signed between Greater Manchester and Metropole Ruhr, part of North Rhine-Westphalia, in September 2021 aims to strengthen business, trade, cultural and educational links. “Youth mobility is really key on that [agreement] as well,” Cooke said.
Speakers also spoke of ensuring that the Europe is viewed as many small regions, rather than as one large market.
“Thinking about countries, not thinking about Europe as a whole is so important,” deputy head of student recruitment (international) at University of Cambridge, Roshan Walkerley, said. Ireland and Portugal have been strong for the institution, but “some other markets have been very challenging”. Irish students still have access to home fees.
Success has varied across study levels too, he added. “We are particularly concerned at doctoral level – that’s one of the few areas where we are looking to have some growth.”
“The UK is absolutely flying at the moment. I think we can take great pride in what we have to offer as institutions, including in Europe,” Justin Wood of Coventry University said.
Following the UK’s EU referendum in 2016, Coventry recognised that it was “never going to have the same level of fee income and volume from Europe”, Wood said.
To mitigate decline, the university was “really keen to give as many undergraduate European students opportunities to study as possible” and embarked on “really aggressive expansion” in five countries: Portugal; Romania; Lithuania; Poland; and Bulgaria.
That allowed the institution to have a “huge pool of students” who can become the best ambassadors. “I think that is a UK story. If I were to take one thing away, the first thing I would take away is really utilise your alumni and existing student body and celebrate the European presence,” Wood said.
Coventry leveraged and expanding its London campus and offering as well as its Poland campus to maintain attraction for EU students, he continued. The campus in Wrocław has allow the institution to connect with the industrial base in Poland. “It has also, unforeseen, put us in a really strong position to respond to the crisis in Ukraine,” he added.
“[London] is still a global city with real appeal,” he said. “[We also] used data and insights to understand where Coventry fits… and understand where [we] are valued and distinctive.”
“[It was also about] understanding areas where perhaps colleagues in the RG universities aren’t able to meet the needs of students in areas like hospitality, leisure and sports, some STEM subjects where that really practical hands on vocational focus and links with industry can help give them something that is different.”
Institutions are also looking beyond Europe for international students, but the continent “definitely has a contribution” to play in diversity initiatives.
“I’m really proud to have grown exponentially… over the last three years,” Wood said. “But we all know what that growth is coming from,” he added referring to non-EU nations such as India and China.
“The diversity agenda is really important and that is why the EU is really important, because if you’ve got an area where there is a fall in numbers, you want to do more work to bring that up,” Cooke said.
Europe is an important source for academically gifted students – Abitur and French Baccalaureate holders are “very attractive” to Cambridge colleges, Walkerley said.
Collaboration to show “the strength and the diversity” of the UK offering is important to reach EU students, he suggested, especially when visiting international schools.
“Individual institution visits are really hard to facilitate”
“We know that the international schools are having visits and are hearing from us and universities in the US, Canada and Australia, and everywhere else. Individual institution visits are really hard to facilitate.”
Cambridge is one of a 10-university group that travelled in March to visit international schools, he said. However, institutions are looking to new regions.
“As our European numbers do decline… on the postgraduate side for example, we’re starting to work more in Latin America, which is a region that we weren’t very active in until about 18 months ago,” Walkerley said.
Highly selective institutions such as Cambridge are seeing a renewed “real fight for places”, he continued.
“We have a focus on widening participation, increasing our percentage of UK state school students. And all of that comes up against the increased demand for international students. I think that would be a real challenge for a lot of competitive universities. For those that don’t have capacity to grow in the next few years, [it’ll be interesting to see] how that balance between the UK and the international student agenda pans out.”