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UK: new drive to increase education exports

The British government will establish a new unit to help realise the “untapped” potential of the offshore education exports industry. However, a peak body for English language schools and figures from higher education warn it will not be enough to offset the impact of tougher inbound visa policies.

The government claims exports could grow from £14 billion annually to £21.5 billion by 2020

Education UK, which will be run jointly by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and UK Trade and Investment, will develop opportunities for trade for sectors ranging from schools, colleges, universities and private providers, to teaching, equipment provision and architecture. “Fast-growing” markets such as India and the Middle East will be targeted.

“We are in a global race and other countries are presenting attractive and co-ordinated offers”

BIS said the UK was currently not “well-equipped to respond to large-scale complex commercial opportunities” and that it would support UK providers to win bids through consortia – as is done by competitors such as Germany.

“This is much more about cross-cutting opportunities or large projects being tendered by overseas governments and companies, which have an education angle,” a spokesperson told The PIE News.

“For example, a country wanting to improve the level of English of its English teachers or a large infrastructure project which means hundreds of people need upskilling. The UK has the relevant expertise and experience to help with these sorts of issues, but we do not always co-ordinate our efforts to make the most of these opportunities.”

The body will not deal with promoting the UK as a study destination, however – a concern to some given the decline in international enrolments seen over the last few years, particularly in language and further education, due to tougher visa policies.

English UK’s chief executive, Tony Millns, said: “We are pleased to see that one government department at least understands the potential for growth that the UK’s highly-regarded education sector presents, but unless the Home Office changes its approach on student visas and the net migration target the initiative will face difficulties in those types of education, such as English language, where students naturally want to come to the UK and learn in an English-speaking environment.”

“Unless the Home Office changes its approach on student visas and the net migration target the initiative will face difficulties”

Christine Ennew, pro vice chancellor and provost of the University of Nottingham, which has branch campuses in Malaysia and China, said: “I would be concerned about the assumption that direct support for transnational education opportunities is a way of promoting export earnings.

“The dominant HE export continues to be onshore education which generates significant direct income to the UK associated with both fees paid to UK HEIs and spending by students when they are in the UK,” she said.

Others add that the risks of expanding offshore are being underplayed. While BIS says calls for more private investment in universities’ offshore activities have resulted in “strong interest”, issues remain over “the timescales for return” and “the size and scale of the education investment opportunities coming out of the UK”.

However, Matthew Anderson, director of TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training UK), said that increasing offshore activity was the best route forward for the providers he represented. “The BIS people we deal with are all on side with the problems caused by UKBA but of course can’t do much about it. We have refocused a lot of our efforts on the student recruitment work in favour of getting people out there to train.”

BIS believes that total exports could grow from £14 billion annually to £21.5 billion by 2020. The number of students studying British degrees offshore also grew from 503,795 to 571,010 last year.

Speaking on a visit to India to promote vocational education, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock said: “It is essential that we realise the potential of the largely untapped resource that is our education exports.

“We are in a global race and other countries are presenting attractive and co-ordinated offers, so Education UK is a vital step in bringing together the UK sector to drive its international engagement, particularly on high-value opportunities.”

• Meanwhile, the British Council issued a press release underlining that its own Education UK brand has been around since 2005, and reassuring any stakeholders that were confused that it will work with BIS and UKTI to further develop and segment this promotional brand. “By bringing alongside these efforts with those of UKTI/BIS to increase UK education exports, we can create a more coherent and integrated UK education offer,” said Dr Jo Beall, director of education and society.

She even suggested developing Education UK into a kitemark for quality across sectors: “As we develop the brand together we will explore ways in which the mark ‘Education UK’ may be used more widely as a quality endorsement marking, available to other UK education providers and organisations.”

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