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Sector reacts to UK “lollipop” growth strategy

The weekend was abuzz with comments and opinions ranging in reaction to the newly announced UK international education strategy. Taking centre stage was the ambition to grow the sector by 30% and add £15bn to the sum raised by UK education export and TNE by 2030.

The strategy aims to extend the post-study work visa to ensure the UK "continues to attract" international students. Photo: Pixabay

"The big news is the numerical target"

Many industry stakeholders have shared opinions, ranging from positive reception of a long-awaited policy confirmation, to derision at what they saw as a weak offer. Some in the English language teaching camp were perhaps the least enthused.

“[If] Home Office got behind this and simplified our massively complex visa rules, we could really start to motor”

Part of the feeling the new strategy was not actually as new as promised came from the Migration Advisory Committee recommendations which the government accepted in its Immigration white paper.

Stephan Roussounis, founder of English in Cyprus and now managing director of Bayswater Education, said the policies amount to “not much of a step forward” due to limited post-study work options and no new offer to language students.

Dominic Scott, who remains chief executive of UKCISA until later this year, also noted the similarity between the strategy and the white paper, but concluded with a more hopeful analysis of the inter-governmental nature of the strategy.

“The big news is the numerical target,” he told The PIE News. “If all government departments, including and especially the Home Office got behind this and simplified our massively complex visa rules, we could really start to motor.”

Colin Bell, CEO of COBIS, went further. “The strategy clearly articulates how the best of British education… can thrive as a global export of incalculable soft power and influence,” he said in a statement.

Bell added that he advised the Education Advisory Group at the Department of International Trade on the new strategy, and the process left him feeling positive about the government’s interaction with the sector, and production of the strategy.

“This work is an excellent example of an effective and consultative partnership between the government and key educational industry bodies,” he concluded.

But commentators from overseas questioned the efficiency of the new strategy, which doesn’t fully contemplate the different futures the UK could experience, depending how it leaves the EU, potentially in just two weeks.

Alex Usher, the Canadian-based HE consultant behind HESA, asked if such an announcement was wise, especially with UK politics in a state he described as an ‘omnishambles‘.

Another HE consultant, Vicky Lewis, said the distraction was useful – but “whether it was wise to issue it now is a question those in other countries may be better placed to answer”.

In Europe, another stakeholder told The PIE although the strategy was “commendable” the bigger questions around Brexit and the future of the industry meant it was “premature” to set numerical targets.

“It’s commendable that the Department for Education doesn’t put its head in the sand in light of Brexit, and that they want to increase inbound mobility. But right now, while it’s still unclear when, how, or even if Brexit is happening, it seems premature to formulate specific target numbers,” said Gerrit Blöss, managing director of Study.eu

“It seems a bit like writing postcards before you know where you’re going on holiday,” he added. 

“It shows ministers and officials do care and the direction of travel is the right one”

He noted the nod to outbound mobility as an important development, but concluded that more should follow.

“It’s good to see that outbound mobility receives some attention. But we hope the UK will increase its efforts even further; not just to send students abroad as “ambassadors for UK education” but because those intercultural experiences will benefit the students themselves, their future employers and British society at large,” Blöss said.

The international media has also reacted to the news, with headlines and reactions appearing Indian and Chinese newspapers, to name a few.

The Times of India published the views of Indian students and graduates, who described the policy as “just a lollipop” [to attract students], and a tool to attract the “international students [seen] as cash cows”.

However, Nick Hillman director of HEPI in London argued that despite its flaws, the strategy is a force for good.

“It shows ministers and officials do care and the direction of travel is the right one. We just need to get to the destination much more quickly or else we will find our main competitors get their long before we do,” he told The PIE.

Hillman agreed with Blöss that a focus on outbound mobility was needed, but said the current imbalance could lead to problems in the future.

“The biggest problem though may come later on – if, post-Brexit, we want to build trade deals, alliances and new links, we need to operate as a true partner with other countries. If we receive but don’t give back, that becomes much harder,” he said.

The provenance of the report was also a concern to Hillman, who said it was a “failure” of the Home Office to not co-sponsor the policy.

“As a result of their failure to co-sponsor the document, other government departments continue to have one hand tied behind their backs,” he concluded.

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