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Robin Bew, MD, Economist Intelligence Unit

Renowned economist Robin Bew delivers an annual keynote at the British Council international education conference and assesses the global economic landscape. We got to ask him some questions directly after that keynote, selections of which preface our Q&A below.


"Brexit is a kind of symptom of a bigger issue, which is going to affect our PR almost by osmosis"

Robin Bew : [In terms of economic outlook], we’re a long way away, for many countries, from getting back to where we were before this [pandemic] started. So that means, even though we’re going to see some pretty good economic data being reported over the course of the next 12 months or so, those will not be sufficient to fully offset the pace of decline we saw last year.

We’re going to need to see several years of strong economic growth to get us back to before to where we were before this started.

And what kind of things are making a difference here? One is how energetic can governments be in boosting the economy? So that’s partly around: do they have the ability – the financial ability – and the commitment?  Some countries are politically focused on making this happen. Other countries, not so much.

Then there is: monetary policy. Is your central bank willing to help the government in making that happen? Broadly speaking, that’s what’s going on. Other things are going to be important. What is the make up of your economies? If you rely very much on hospitality or tourism, those things are going to be particularly problematic.

“[China is] going to grow by nearly 9% in 2021, pretty much back to normal there”

How severe your lockdowns were and how many you had to have clearly are going to be important. Exports: that’s important because one of the things that allows countries to grow more quickly is, if the stuff they make, they can sell it overseas. And so if you sell a lot to China, that’s going to be very helpful.

China is the winner [in terms of economic recovery]. They did not even shrink last year. They shrank in the first half, but they bounced back in second half. They’re going to grow by nearly 9% in 2021, pretty much back to normal there.

The PIE: I’m keen on your thoughts of the growth of transnational education and the delivery of education offshore in other countries. Do you think we’ll see more of that, and where?

RB: I do think you’ll see more of it, but I think it’s going to get riskier. [There were previously] some obvious places that you would go, the UAE, Singapore, [that] were quite well established MBA and business school hubs.

And then there was China. If you look at the challenges educational establishments have had in China, I’d put them into two camps. So one is the geopolitical spectrum – China’s relationship with academia and freedom of speech and those issues making it difficult.

I think the other problem is that China has decided it’s a strategic imperative to build up an indigenous, more effective educational system. [Its] level of development means having a much higher proportion of the workforce with a tertiary level education.

As part of the development path from agriculture, manufacturing, low level services, high level services, China realised that it needed to put a lot more people through university. And the initial approach was sending students overseas and then academic institutions build capacity and campuses in China. And now they’re saying ‘we want to support our own sector’.

Other countries are further back on the development spectrum, so income levels are lower, they don’t need to put the same numbers of people through higher education. But if you look 10 years, 20 years ahead, I suspect you will see the same sorts of issues.

The PIE: On the prospect of a divided Great Britain – separated Northern Ireland, separated Scotland – what do you think that would do to the appeal of the UK internationally?

RB: I feel really sorry for the UK education sector because for a long time – since the Brexit debate started in 2014 – we’ve been in this really difficult situation where the government’s stated policy is that education is an important export industry, but then all the ancillary policies that might make that possible have been acting to make it as hard as possible for UK education to be successful.

Everything from the visa requirements, work permit issues of students coming over here, not being able to work afterwards, that just makes it really hard for the academic sector to promote itself and compete effectively.

“America has also, over the last four years, painted itself into a pretty difficult space”

They’re not on their own. America has also, over the last four years, painted itself into a pretty difficult space… it’s going to take more than four years of Biden for people to think that America has put all that behind it. I just think it’s not within Biden’s gift to undo all of that damage.

It would be wrong to say that British education couldn’t overcome the break up of the UK [if that were to happen]. I mean, we’ve obviously got great products, we’ve got some of the best institutions in the world, and teaching across a wide range of institutions is recognised as being very high quality.

I think Britain’s role in the world is increasingly going to look diminished. This separation from the EU – the government narrative is that that’s going to allow Britain to sort of strike a global posture – but I think what will actually happen is a Britain which is less relevant.

We’re going to have to counter the narrative that Britain has become a more isolationist place. I think we’ve benefited for a long time from the narrative that Britain is internationally engaged and open. We’re going to have to market ourselves quite aggressively to overcome a reality that Britain is no longer as internationally engaged and open as it used to be.

The PIE: When I have sometimes spoken to international students from, for example, Thailand, something like Brexit is irrelevant to them.

RB: I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. I don’t think it’s about Brexit, not directly. Brexit is a kind of symptom of a bigger issue, which is going to affect our PR almost by osmosis. Brexit is a marker that the British population is just less interested in engaging internationally than people thought. This idea that Britain is less interested in international engagement than it was, and the British population is… less welcoming to foreigners than it used to be.

Things like Scotland [seeking to be] independent and Northern Ireland cleaving off and joining Ireland, those things won’t help the narrative. So it’s not [only] Brexit, clearly if you live in the EU, then that makes a massive difference.

But I think notwithstanding the government’s strategy that it wants to be more global, the broader story is that a lot of people in Britain actually don’t even want to be European, let alone be global. I think that narrative will become more pronounced over time.

The PIE: Edtech saw £16 billion investment in the last year. What do you think about the edtech sector? How does the UK seize potential opportunity in that space?

RB: I think that’s massive, and the UK has got a big advantage that we’re English speaking. I think that makes talent acquisition easier.

“While [edtech has] exploded, I think quality is really patchy at the moment”

While it’s exploded, I think quality is really patchy at the moment, I guess would be a polite way of putting it. So I think there is a real opportunity for institutions who are able to get it right, and lots of institutions have not got it right at the moment. So we see tons of really boring and un-interactive, uninspiring, online delivered education. It clearly doesn’t need to be like that.

I think the big opportunity not only for Britain but for other countries, too, is how quickly could institutions optimise their offering for that kind of digital environment in a way that gives them the competitive edge. Just delivering the existing courses and educational experience through Zoom isn’t going to cut it, but delivering an education experience that takes full advantage of what digital capabilities can do. I think there’s a massive opportunity in that.

The potential is enormous, but you’ve got to break away from the existing operating mode.

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