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With great growth, comes great responsibility: where next for the UK’s international student recruitment?

Last week the UK met the target set out in its International Education Strategy to attract at least 600,000 international higher education students 10 years early.

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"Over the next few years, the UK sector will need to respond to the challenges of decreased EU student interest"

The new data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that in 2020/21 the UK had hosted 152,905 students from Europe (an increase of 3% on 2019/20) and 452,225 from the rest of the world (an increase of 11% on 2019/20).

The fact that the UK had reached this target in 2020/21, an academic year so heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, made the news even more remarkable to some. It is news though that for me should be seen as testament to the hard work of colleagues across the UK sector and to the courage of the students themselves to proceed with their study plans in the face of such uncertainty and adversity.

It is also true, however, that as soon as the news of the target being met had broken, questions started to flow in. Among them, how sustainable is this growth, how prepared was the UK for it and, with the target met, is the UK’s International Education Strategy still relevant?

Both 2020 and 2021 were exceptional years for all, including for the global mobility of students. While hard to quantify, it seems likely that the boost to the UK’s numbers was not just due to the actions taken by the UK sector and government, though these should not be underestimated or undervalued, but also due to those of other governments and sectors around the world.

Put simply, during the crucial conversion periods of spring and autumn 2020, the UK remained open to international students in a way that other destinations did not.

This and a few other crucial factors such as the stark drop in EU applications and acceptances reported by UCAS for the current academic year and the some signs of cooling demand from China, visible in both HESA and UCAS stats, mean that we cannot be certain that this level of growth will be sustained. Over the next few years, the UK sector will need to respond to the challenges of decreased EU student interest in the UK as a study destination and to the shifting sands of interest outside of Europe.

The UK’s International Education Strategy continues to be crucial to ensuring the long-term sustainability of this growth.

“Making the most of the Graduate route has been a much-discussed topic in the sector since its introduction”

Also crucial is maintaining high-quality experiences and good outcomes for international students in the face of such growth, especially during a global pandemic, is another incredibly important issue. Making the most of the Graduate route has been a much-discussed topic in the sector since its introduction – we cannot rest on our laurels and assume the availability of the route itself is sufficient.

How the sector delivers on this affects not only the UK’s current international students, but also its future attractiveness as a study destination. From first-hand experience I know it is a topic that colleagues across the UK sector are working hard on. For me, it is important not only to reflect on the magnitude of growth when considering the experience and outcomes of international students, but also on the changing shape of the international student population in the UK and therefore the evolving nature of support they may require.

Many of us, myself included, are quick to refer to international students as a homogeneous group but they are far from it. The demographics of that group in UK universities are changing and, in some universities, changing fast. We need to make sure we all work together, including with the UK government, to respond to this, sharing best practice and channeling investment and focus into this area. Once again, the UK’s International Education Strategy with its actions relating to the international student experience and graduate employability remains a highly relevant and important vehicle through which to channel this important collective effort.

So, while the UK has met one of the targets in its International Education Strategy, it’s not the end of the hard work by any means. Now it is time for the UK to focus more than ever on the student and graduate experience for the students who have chosen to study in the UK.

At Universities UK International’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF), online on 16 and 17 March 2022, senior leaders in international higher education from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, will discuss the big issues in international student recruitment.

Discussions will revolve around competitive advantage, the Covid 19 pandemic, and EdTech disruption. We will debate what the future may look like for international student recruitment strategies across these study destinations, including where the UK goes next. Find out more here.

About the author: Steph Harris is the Acting Assistant Director for Policy and Global Engagement at Universities UK International, leading the organisation’s work in the areas of international student recruitment, transnational education, global research and innovation and international experience.

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