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UK strategy needs wider government backing

The UK’s international education strategy needs wider endorsement from government departments in order to reach – or even surpass – its targets, stakeholders have said.

The discussion on October 18 was chaired by Catriona McCarthy, director for Global Engagement at Ulster University and BUILA vice chair. Photo: The PIE News

"My biggest bugbear [with the national strategy] is, where is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in this?"

The international education strategy – initially launched in 2019, and later updated in 2021 – is “a fantastic step forward and it’s been very successful, but it’s not as successful as it could have been”, said James Pitman, Study Group managing director for UK and Europe.

Pitman was speaking at the Independent Higher Education conference on October 18, ahead of the resignation of home secretary Suella Braverman the following day.

The strategy is sponsored by the departments of international trade and education, which Pitman noted as a “concern”.

“International education is highly dependent on student visas and is therefore dependent on the Home Office”

“Of course, international education is highly dependent on student visas and is therefore dependent on the Home Office. And it’s something we have really wondered about why it is that they are not integrated in that,” he said.

If the Home Office had been a signatory of the strategy, the former home secretary may not have made recent remarks criticising the number of international students and their dependents in the UK, he indicated.

Suella Braverman – who has now resigned from Liz Truss’s cabinet, who has now also resigned – seems to have “no understanding of how those kind of negative messages can reverberate around the world so quickly and in such a competitive world”, Pitman said.

Braverman’s concerns were met with fury from those marketing the UK as an international study destination.

Following the home secretary’s resignation, UUK chief executive Vivienne Stern reminded that the UK sector cannot be complacent.

“We need to make sure we have eyes in the back of our heads when it comes to any potential abuse of the system, and work with Home Office to maintain confidence in the system,” she wrote on Twitter.

Chief Executive of London Higher – which launched its own regional strategy for the UK’s capital city last week – Diana Beech noted that the original strategy is “a statement of intent, but it’s a one size fits all”.

With the diversity of providers in London, London Higher sought to “look at what is local to London”, which may not be possible in a national strategy.

“My biggest bugbear [with the national strategy] is, where is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in this?” she asked.

“We talk about students, PhDs, masters, the research pipeline, surely they should be a big supporter in the international strategy. I really think that they need to be one of the key stakeholders in this, too, and that’s certainly something that we call for in our report, looking at the progression pipeline to bolster our R&D.”

“Most of us agree that international education, international students are broadly very positive soft power, without even mentioning the economic benefits… surely that’s something that the Home Office can understand,” Pitman added.

“Maybe we could look for more collaboration across departments of government and make influential indications even more successful when we have a new [international student] target.”

The comment were not to take anything away from the success of the strategy to date, speakers on the panel emphasised.

Esther Wilkinson, head of International at Jisc, noted that the strategy created a framework for the digital transformation specialist to “demonstrate that we can input into things like international student experience, the employability agenda”.

The strategy relies heavily on TNE and you can’t deliver that without infrastructure. So for Jisc, it’s been a very positive thing to start off the discussions with other agencies and the wider sector,” she said. 

The Study Group exec joined UKCISA president in calling for the UK to set a target of one million students by 2030, after reaching the 600,000 target in 2020/21.

However, not everyone in the sector is convinced that the UK should aim for growth for growth’s sake.

“We do need to paint a picture of sustainable growth, but we do have to do our part to show that we are welcoming international students in the best way, i.e. we have a high quality in experience for them,” Beech said.

“We need to give as much as we take from government. And I think if we do that as a sector, then the future is rosy.”

“In the round, I think we’re still very positive about the opportunities for international education”

“It’s about making sure those international students have a good experience and we have that sustainable growth and link to that quality,” Jacqui Jenkins, global programme lead for International Student Mobility at the British Council added.

“International students are our best marketers. If we get that relationship wrong, if they see themselves as just a trades figure, then that is not going to help us long term.”

Pitman pointed to a “massive amount of lobbying” for international education over the last 10 years.

“I think if you put those messages in the context of where they were said and the agenda of that particular secretary at that particular moment we do need to be concerned, but in the round, holistically, I think we’re still very positive about the opportunities for international education,” he said.

Some 24 hours later, the home secretary had resigned her position.

Update, 13:35 GMT: The prime minister Liz Truss has now resigned. This article has been amended to reflect this.

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