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The importance of international students to the excellence of UK HE

When we consider flows, trends and finances, it’s easy to downplay purpose. How do we capture that?
December 19 2023
4 Min Read

How do we measure the importance of international students to higher education?

The Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset wrote, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I’ll tell you who you are.” And so it is with calculating value. When we consider flows, trends and finances, it’s easy to downplay purpose. How do we capture that?

Yet we must find a way. Most universities are not only complex financial operations with challenging budgets and international partnerships. They are charities, and they are duty-bound to begin and end with purpose.

The best ones know that everything they do is at the service of education, from the level of the changed minds and lives of students to the research which broadens and deepens knowledge and sometimes changes our world.

Yet discernment of value is bound up in just weights and accurate measurement, and each of us – in our own ways – are professionally and personally committed to understanding and communicating the importance of international education. So, where should we begin?

First of all, we do not begin in a neutral space. International students are increasingly seen as both a cost and a benefit. As a focus on immigration increases around the world, young people entering and leaving a country before and after study tend to be evaluated in financial rather than educational terms.

As such, the narrative around globally comparable data on international students is typically seen in financial terms – expressed as a country’s global market share and of the export value of their economic contributions to the host country’s economy. Or we talk in terms of system need – the fact that international students cross-subsidise domestic tuition or fill the 25% gap in public funding of the research, which bolsters the UK’s impressive position in the global higher education rankings.

Yet, to really establish value, we need to ask other questions – how are the lives of students changed, and how will they, in turn, use that education to benefit others? We need a shift in mindset from immigration to education.

The traditional measurements of student success are harder to come by internationally. Completion rates, satisfaction with their course, and degree outcomes – these are not widely available at a global level or even collected by statistical agencies.

There is good news. The UK is praised internationally as the HE system with the highest completion rate for full-time bachelor students. In fact, international students have lower non-continuation than home students – and, as such, they actually reduce the overall dropout rate.

While there are significant variations from country to country and some recent increases in drop-out rates during the pandemic, overall performance remains strong. EU students especially have some of the highest graduate outcomes, making invaluable contributions to the overall academic experience in the classroom. And international students have higher student satisfaction on the NSS compared with home students.

And international students are not only consumers of knowledge in our universities, they are key to its creation. Non-UK PhDs make up just under half of the overall full-time doctoral students, and research across many subjects heavily relies on global talent. International full-time students account for 77% of doctoral students in economics, and over 60% across most engineering-related disciplines.

Their contribution to the advancement of what politicians like to call our ‘Science superpower’ is also too often overlooked- if you walk into almost any research lab in British academia, you will be struck by how international it is.

The government may have lauded the UK’s success in creating the Covid vaccine but it was created in the Jenner Lab staffed by an international team, and negotiations with the commercial producers were led by Regius Professor Sir John Bell who also came to the UK as an international student.

The same is true countrywide – half of the PhDs from China at Liverpool’s Material Innovation Factory cohort published as first authors in leading international journals, and some go on to win Nobel Prizes.

“There is a growing concern amongst universities about declines in the current recruitment cycle”

A valuation of international students to UK higher education, which only looks through an immigration or consumption lens, risks missing the educational point. International students are, for example, more likely to engage in volunteering. How can we capture the feeling a student has for their adopted home, the friendships they make, and the rethinking of their own assumptions and culture?

Here, we need to shift gear from quantity to quality. Market research shows that ‘word of mouth’ is critical to student decision-making in where students want to study, and social media amplifies the power of storytelling. What stories will international students tell about their education, the welcome they received, the opportunities to engage with a new society?

There is a growing concern amongst universities about declines in the current recruitment cycle, and in particular about the impact of perceptions of welcome, which are fundamental to identifying a study destination. Yet the most effective way to combat negative perceptions lies at the heart of educational purpose.

If we ensure all students – international and home – are supported to reach their academic potential and have a good experience, then the individual and the system will thrive.

This article was written by Ruth Arnold and Janet Ilieva.

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