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Are we in danger of letting short-term challenges eclipse long-term international appeal?

If you took a snapshot of the international student landscape for UK higher education right now, all would appear relatively healthy at a surface level. In terms of sheer volume, the picture looks good: there are more international offer holders in the pipeline for the September 2022 intake than last year, and we hit the International Education Strategy target of 600,000 international students a decade early.

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"Having now lost what was almost a unique selling point of being ‘open for business’, the UK can’t afford to be complacent"

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. From speaking to senior leaders in UK universities – including at a recent roundtable UniQuest and Universities UK International hosted – we know that there are short-term challenges currently commanding a lot of resources and attention, which could mean enrolment for the coming intake doesn’t quite match the pipeline.

This, in turn, presents another challenge. Because universities seem to be in perpetual fire-fighting mode, it’s difficult to proactively look to the future and address the bigger question of maintaining increased demand. We’ve had the edge in recent years while the UK was one of the few study destinations ‘open’, and we need to continue to build on that momentum.

Right now, many universities are grappling with how to best manage the rise in international enquiries and applications we’ve seen this year. There’s currently a 38% increase in offer holders alone across the UniQuest partner group, all of which will require varying degrees of interaction through to enrolment.

Admissions and enquiries teams across the UK are working hard to process or respond to applicants in a timely manner, as a bad experience now, when many applicants are making their final decisions, could easily prompt them to go elsewhere. It’s too late in the cycle for re-opening rival markets to swoop in, but it’s certainly not too late for last-minute movement between UK institutions in favour of those who are more responsive.

Then we have the global problem of the rising cost of living which is being felt in every corner of the world, along with record inflation. For the past few months, UniQuest’s FAQ data has shown an increase in enquiries about financial assistance from all international applicants, though particularly those from India and Nigeria. Tellingly, this is outstripping the increase in the volume of offer holders themselves, and has prompted some universities to give greater consideration to how they might best be able to support these cohorts.

While attention is understandably focused on navigating the immediate challenges outlined above, it makes it harder for the sector to look at how we can best maintain, or perhaps even grow, international demand as other markets re-open.

We know that many universities are striving towards greater geographic diversification, an objective clearly set out in the International Education Strategy, as both a means of spreading risk and enriching the student experience on campus. In terms of achieving this diversification goal, protecting and developing the Graduate Route and graduate employability is critical.

While other study destinations are coming out with really positive messaging around post-study employment prospects, and some – notably Australia and Canada – are offering a longer post-study work visa, we need to do everything we can to compete and evidence success.

In particular, better data on employment outcomes for Graduate Route visa holders, as well as data on both students and employers’ experience of using the route, would be a very valuable asset to understand, further develop and promote.

“Universities seem to be in perpetual fire-fighting mode”

Post-graduate employment opportunities underpin the long-term success of the Graduate Route, and we need more government support to promote the route and to increase awareness among employers – many of whom don’t currently understand its viability. Reassurance around perceived compliance risks and more concerted effort on communicating the benefits to employers would put the UK in a healthier and more sustainable position and support the UK IES growth and diversification goals.

We might have fared better than other markets in the past couple of years but, having now lost what was almost a unique selling point of being ‘open for business’, the UK can’t afford to be complacent. The first test for many universities will be this September as they see whether their impressive pipelines come to fruition.

Beyond that, we need to continue the great work we are all doing and find a way to ensure we can be proactive as well as reactive. This means that, alongside working to address immediate challenges, we need to carve out time to focus on medium-long term priorities. A more robust set of data on Graduate Route outcomes is a logical place to start and could quickly be woven into compelling messages that could have a huge impact on decision-making.

About the authors: Rachel Fletcher is CEO and Co-Founder of UniQuest and Andy Howells is Assistant Director (External Affairs) at Universities UK International

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