Op-ed: International students are surely a UK success story
International and transnational education bring cultural, economic and reputational benefits to the UK, writes Vice-Chancellor Professor Wendy Thomson CBE in WonkHE.
I was pleased to join the panel at the recent launch of the HEPI/UUKi/Kaplan report on the benefits and costs of international higher education students to the UK economy.
The report is the third in the series on this topic that was first done with the 2015–16 cohort and replicated with the 2018–19 and 20–21 cohorts. It analyses the direct, indirect, and induced benefits of the 679,970 international students studying in the UK, calculating their contribution to be £41.9bn gross and £37.4bn net.
The analysis disaggregates the benefits at a regional and parliamentary constituency level, making a powerful case for the levelling up impact of international students in higher education. At a net economic impact per student of £125,000 per EU domiciled student and £96,000 per non-EU student, the benefits are evident all across the UK: in Sheffield Central (£277.9m), Newcastle upon Tyne East (£264.4m), and Birmingham Selly Oak (£155.4m).
Surely this is a national success story? A 40 per cent increase in the number of international students from 2018-19 to 2020-21 indicates a performance way in excess of the original target of 600,000 set by the International Education Strategy. So, a reasonable question is – why do we have such instability and even hostility in the policy environment, when international students have such a compellingly positive impact?
Coming from Canada, I can say that there is no such uncertainty about the value of international students and the reputation of Canadian universities. Immigration is seen as a positive thing, and international students a welcome contribution to society.
The London story
I’m pleased but not surprised to see that London universities are a powerful attraction to international students – four in 10 students in London are international, taking a range of programmes at postgraduate and undergraduate level. This is about levelling up, as the economic impact is not just felt in Bloomsbury and Westminster but also in West Ham, East Ham, Bermondsey and Poplar.
Our success in attracting international students is valued by the Mayor and London Councils. Universities recognise their civic responsibility at a local and strategic level. The University of London is signatory to the London Anchor Institutions’ Charter and we are active in the London Anchor Institution network.
Through this civic engagement a direct connection is being established between the spending power of London’s universities and our local procurement, living wage employers, and carbon reduction of the extensive university estates. We have facts and figures to show the economic benefit at a local level that is reported in this research by London Economics.
More than money
Students enrich our social capital in London and across the UK. They enhance the education we offer all students both domestic and international. The freeze on tuition fees since 2012 and the recent inflationary pressures have reduced the spending power of the £9,250 fee to a current value of around £6,200.
International students make it possible for UK universities to maintain a diverse array of educational programmes, more costly than domestic fees would cover. The UK is a research powerhouse but the full cost has never been covered by funders. As long as that is the reality, international student income is important to sustaining universities’ research capacity and contribution.
Soft power is another legacy given by international students. This is particularly important at a time when the UK’s position in this international ranking is at risk. In the annual Brand Finance survey 2023, Britain managed to hold its second place position, but fell 10 places on “politically stable and well-governed”. To balance the episodic turbulence in our national politics, we need students with first-hand experience of the UK and its educational system.
Home and abroad
In this heated debate, I would also like to draw attention to the importance of the education we bring to other countries. The demand for education is huge in developing nations, with growth driven by demographic trends and increasing prosperity. This demand is not going to be met any time soon by students coming to study in the West, nor by study at physical campuses and new institutions.
According to the International Labour Organisation, a majority of workers in the developing world do not have a tertiary education. The education of women is still a key Strategic Development Goal. We need to care about this unmet demand, when we consider the role that education (particularly of women) plays in building stable communities and inclusive economic development.
The last estimate was that there are 551, 415 transnational education (TNE) students studying with UK providers. These students pay for themselves, at no cost to the UK public purse. Some will come here for postgraduate study. Most will have an enduring affiliation to the UK and the life-changing experience that an internationally recognised university degree affords.
The University of London is the largest provider of TNE, through distance, flexible or distributed learning, representing 36 per cent of the total UK overseas market, with over 45,000 students studying on degree programmes – at an affordable fee – in more than 190 countries around the world. It has taken decades to gain recognition for this kind of education, achieved through a consistent focus on quality, and working with national policy makers and regulators around the world. It would be tragic for this domestic uncertainty over international students to create a hostile climate for the work we do in country. That is a real and current threat.
The political point of view
So let’s return to the stark question – why do we have such uncertainty in the policy environment, when international students have such a compellingly positive impact on the UK economy? Especially when a 40 per cent increase in international students since 2018-19 is such a clear success story.
You can’t really avoid turning to the politics when talking about this issue. Immigration is at the top of the political agenda and we regularly see front page media coverage. Every day sees statements expressing divergent ministerial points of view, and speculation from Cabinet debates. Labour is also concerned about how to get this right.
But maybe public views are ahead of party preoccupations. According to Ipsos, more polling is done on immigration than any other issue and it shows that immigration is no longer top of the public’s concerns.
In advance of the recent local elections, immigration didn’t feature amongst people’s top five issues and wasn’t seen to be a major factor in the results of the vote. Immigration is seen as the top issue by only six per cent of those polled. Despite the increase in immigration numbers, a majority of people now see immigration as a positive thing – a major shift in attitudes since 2016.
Perhaps another reason international students feature in the search for policy solutions to the perceived immigration problem is that it’s one lever that government can actually use. With labour shortages, the push for economic growth, and the foreign policy priorities of Ukraine and Hong Kong, other policy levers look well nigh impossible. It would be a brave government that would stop skilled workers or high value migrants from coming to the UK.
On the world stage
We shall see what develops in the coming days. I hope that the evidence of a £41.9bn economic contribution made by international students will provide compelling evidence for policy-makers.
It is harmful to our international standing to have a hostile and unstable policy climate for international education. UK universities are one of the UK’s most successful brands, and need to be cherished and promoted – both at home and abroad.