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How the revised International Education Strategy presents a collective opportunity to ‘build back better’

The Department for Education and Department for International Trade published the UK’s updated International Education Strategy on February 6, 2021, with the ambition to ‘help the education sector build back better from the pandemic.’

The revised strategy reaffirms the UK's commitment to increase the number of international students studying in the country to 600,000 by 2030. Photo: Unsplash

A focus on the international student experience, from application to employment, is very welcome

Build back better. Is it time then to rethink, reset, and radically change what we are doing as a result of significant changes in our environment brought by Brexit and Covid-19? Or is it just a buzz term, merely blatant bluster to dress up what is very much, ‘same old, same old’?

“A clear message here, together we can support recovery, together we can drive growth”

Either way and whatever your view on whether we will evolve as a sector or carry on as we were, one thing is very clear in the revised version of the UK government’s International Education Strategy: unity and collective strength is the route to recovery.

“The International Education Strategy is a platform for the sector to come together and work towards common goals,” said Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, at the IES launch event.

It is “key that the government does not work alone”, said Professor Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s International Higher Education Champion. A clear message here, together we can support recovery, together we can drive growth.

On the surface of it, the main takeaway from the revision of the strategy is that the government remains committed to achieving the two original headline ambitions of the first iteration of the IES published in March 2019:

  • to significantly grow the UK’s education exports to £35 billion per year and
  • to increase the number of international students studying in the UK to 600,000, by 2030.

The IES notes that while “the global context has changed in many ways”, including the UK’s exit from the EU and a pandemic that “has had a significant effect in the UK and around the world”, these developments had “strengthened the case for international cooperation and shown how important it is that we support the recovery and sustainable growth of international education and education exports”.

We see a set of new priority markets, developed in consultation with a number of sector bodies, including UUKi. These markets have been identified as India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, with Brazil, Mexico, China, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Europe as other important regional markets for the UK’s International Education Champion.

A focus on the international student experience, from application to employment, is very welcome, as was the way Universities minister Michelle Donelan spoke about international students, stating: “I want the UK to be the country of choice for international students because they enrich the education experience for all and the communities where they live”.

Key groups representing the sector will again come together with government to ensure a collective, sector-wide approach on this.

The IES also explicitly recognises that the Devolved Administrations have their own established strategies, priorities and activities aimed at growing international education. The UK government strategy should complement these and support the ‘common ambition’ of all parties.

But the strategy is not only about welcoming students to the UK.

The UK’s new mobility program, the Turing Scheme, was launched in the updated IES, with Kate Ewart-Biggs, British Council interim chief executive, stating: “Importantly, the new Turing scheme, which the British Council will help to deliver, will enable thousands of students to study around the world. It will target and provide support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country”.

A key priority for UUKi will be working with UK government and universities to ensure the scheme is a success.

The strategy also talks of “strengthening promotion of the UK’s education offer through the Study UK campaign”.

“The new IES will not stop the debate around whether Covid-19 will fundamentally reshape international higher education”

UUKi, BUILA and the British Council have had positive conversations around taking forward significant improvements to the Study UK campaign to ensure it is working effectively together with UK universities and the sector, aligned with the IES and its key market focus, and delivers clear and transparent value for UK universities.

The new IES will not stop the debate around whether Covid-19 will fundamentally reshape international higher education, with universities rethinking their internationalisation strategies, or whether the effects of the pandemic will be temporary, with universities returning to previous international activities as soon as the crisis is considered to have passed.

What the IES does do, however, is set a clear tone – if we are together, we can move forward, and continue to achieve our international education aims and ambitions.

About the author:

Andrew Howells is Assistant Director, External Affairs at Universities UK International.

UUKi will debate the question ‘Will Covid-19 fundamentally reshape international higher education?’ at length during its annual flagship event, the International Higher Education Forum, online on April 13 and 14. The PIE News is media partner.

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