The PIE: Where does your advocacy for international education stem from?
Jo Johnson: I was very lucky to see the benefits of international study myself. I did my undergrad in the UK, but then I went to ULB to the Institute of European Studies – the Institut d’etudes Europeennes at Universite de Libre Bruxelles – which is a great university in Brussels and studied for a master’s there. I [also studied at] INSEAD in France.
“There are real issues in who is able to benefit from outbound mobility in the UK”
I saw the benefits of learning in a diverse environment with students from all over Europe and beyond. There’s just no getting away from it; the diversity of perspectives is hugely enriching.
The PIE: Do you think there is more of a focus on international students coming to the UK rather than UK students going abroad?
JJ: There are real issues in who is able to benefit from outbound mobility in the UK. It is restricted to cluster groups – those who are able to access financial aid to go to study overseas, and those from backgrounds that enable them to afford to do so.
To be truly sustainable, [I think] the sector needs to think hard about real issues around inaccessibility to international studies.
I think one of the hidden benefits of the coronavirus experiences over recent months has been to highlight that online and distance learning can make international study more accessible and can broaden access to groups who haven’t previously been able to benefit from it.
I think it can create a market for international study that is broader and richer as a result.
The PIE: Can online distance learning become a substitute for in-person experiences then?
JJ: There will still be a very significant group that wants to have the traditional fully-immersive face to face experience. They will still be able to come and get that – it’s a really important part of the offer.
There will be others who will want a hybrid experience, who want to dip in and out of flying overseas. I think those kinds of blended experiences are likely to become more common over the years to come.
What it requires, of course, is much greater coordination and the creation of a really functioning market for credit transfer and articulation arrangements between universities, so that students can accumulate credits and move back and forth between overseas institutions, either physically or studying remotely at them, and institutions domestically.
And there are interesting organisations that are putting together the beginnings of what could genuinely be something like an offer in this respect – I’m thinking of FutureLearn in the UK or Cintana in the US.
The PIE: Do you think there’s enough financial support for inbound international students in the UK?
JJ: Of course, it would always be good to be able to offer more. I think the UK’s new Office for Talent will undoubtedly be looking very carefully at how the country can be more competitive in attracting talented people to come and study and do research here.
And there are ways in which the [UK’s] substantial aid budget can be used towards that purpose too, given that the skills that they acquire in the UK ultimately can be put to benefit their home countries.
The PIE: How does the government view international students? Some international students around the world have said they feel like they’re cash-cows.
JJ: No, it’s not that they are seen in that way. The policy towards international students is now strongly welcoming again, after a period in which they were caught up in the unfortunate net migration targets. That difficulty has been resolved.
The announcement of the post-study work visa, which comes into effect this academic year, demonstrates that the UK is open and welcoming for international students. I think the offer of two years for all students will be a very, very strong pull [particularly] across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Also, the government is actively seeking to increase in numbers to 600,000 by 2035. Even if that target could arguably be more ambitious, it’s good that the government has moved into a space where it’s actually seeking to increase the number of international students.
The PIE: Why has that welcoming attitude changed, and what does it depend on?
JJ: It depends on recognition across government of the benefits that [overseas students] bring to domestic students, from the diverse learning environment that they make possible to the way that they increase the viability of courses that might otherwise be loss-making and therefore not offered to domestic students.
The contributions they make to the overall economy of our higher education system, I think there is a strong recognition of the various and significant benefits that they bring.
The PIE: Would you say that the international education market is becoming more competitive – and is the PSW offer part of the competitiveness?
JJ: In the short term, we’re likely to see fewer international students circulating this coming academic year than we might otherwise have due to the economic impact of coronavirus and the disruptions to travel.
“I do think the post-study work offer of two years for all students will be a very, very strong pull”
Once we start looking beyond coronavirus, I think we will then expect to see strong growth resume as new developing markets become major sources of international students around the world.
I do think the market will evolve as well, in certain the short term more regional study as students look for options that are affordable and close to home in what may be quite difficult economic conditions in the immediate future.
I think the strength of the UK higher education is its abundance of highly-ranked institutions that offer genuinely world-class higher education in a broadly safe and welcoming environment. And those features are hopefully going to persist.
The PIE: European students are not going to be getting home fee status in the UK anymore. Does that open up a new market for full international fee students for UK universities?
JJ: Yes. Effectively the market for EU students has been deregulated and liberalised because the price cap has been taken away. And this does give an opportunity to those institutions who have the most pulling power to recruit more aggressively in those markets at price points, which may be financially quite appealing for them. So let’s wait and see.
Obviously, the impact will be felt differently by different institutions. There may be some who experience a fall-off in demand, but there’ll be other for whom this represents a real opportunity to take advantage of effectively a deregulation of that bit of the market.
The PIE: I also wanted to ask about your work at ApplyBoard – how did that come about and what is your role there as the advisory board chairman?
JJ: It’s a really exciting company. It’s reducing barriers to access to international education in a really helpful way in the sense that students can make multiple applications simultaneously through the platform.
“The government is actively seeking to increase in numbers to 600,000 by 2035”
It enables them to get a seamless and digital journey through what can often be a very complicated and slow-moving university application process, so from the student perspective, it’s a real change and it’s experiencing extraordinarily high growth. Its model is a very, very strong one.
The PIE: The final point is the effects of geopolitics. Can announcements like the recent ICE announcement barring first-year international students from online courses in the US be an opportunity for other destinations to jump in and show their competitiveness?
JJ: I think the key thing is that international students who are caught up in this aren’t put in a position where they are left high and dry. If other countries’ universities can be helpful at a time of extreme difficulty, I think that should be the focus rather than trying to grab market share and so forth.
First and foremost, there are real people involved in these situations who are suffering from real difficulties. And it’s an opportunity for universities to help and to demonstrate that actually they have a social and educational mission that’s driving them. I think that’s what should be coming out most of all in this very difficult time.
The PIE: I know you’ve spoken in the past about having a balance of students from various countries on UK campuses – do you think there’s an over-reliance on Chinese students in the UK?
JJ: I don’t want Chinese students who have come to benefit from the world-class higher education that’s on offer at British universities to get caught up in wider geopolitical tensions.
They’re coming for a great education, and they need to be able to continue and access that without running into prejudice or even worse xenophobia in their studies. So universities are rightly providing support in that respect and ensuring that their campuses remain an inclusive and welcoming environment.
In terms of diversity of students, yes, I think it is important that there is a genuine diversity in the international student body. Obviously, the Chinese student population is a significant one, but it’s not a monolithic one either.
“Students are coming here because their families and they see real value in the British higher education system”
China is a country of 1.4 billion people, diverse in and of itself. It would be a mistake to think of it as entirely state-directed from Beijing, which is very far from the case.
Students are coming here because their families and they see real value in the British higher education system. And it has great appeal to students from around the world. Numbers from India are growing rapidly.
Numbers from other big countries like Nigeria and Malaysia are also growing rapidly, so I think this perceived problem will probably resolve itself.