October 01, 2014

Hobsons’ Duncan Findlater responds to the publication of Universities UK report International students in UK higher education: the UK and its competition. Should the sector be worried about its standing in an increasingly competitive global market? 

The Universities UK report International students in UK higher education: the UK and its competition points to ‘concerning’ trends in declining international student recruitment. The report explores the potential impact of recent changes in the higher education sector relating to course provision and the wider funding environment.

While Universities UK maintains that there is a positive outlook for 2014, it could be argued that the report does not go far enough in highlighting the potential for irreparable damage to the sector. When comparing the UK with its competition, particularly Canada, China, the United States and Australia, the policies of the current government and the changes imposed on the sector are not just a concern. They have had and continue to have an actively detrimental effect on the reputation of UK higher education.

Talking to international students every day allows us to gauge the temperature in international student recruitment. Our annual survey of international students allows us to analyse this on an annual basis. Our findings this year underline the problem highlighted in UUK’s report. A country’s attitude towards international students and whether they can expect a warm welcome is one of the most important factors for applicants in selecting their study destination.

Rather than actively combatting decline in demand, the direction of UK policy continues to restrict the sector, including international graduates’ post-study work opportunities which has affected prospective students’ perceptions of the UK. It is not just changes to funding and immigration that have affected the levels of international student demand. As UUK rightly note, these changes have been implemented at a time when other countries are moving in the opposite direction and providing more generous arrangements.

As the UUK report rightly points out, the UK higher education sector has occupied an ‘enviable position’ within the global market, upheld by an impressive history and reputation. The assumption has been that there will always be a high demand for education in the UK from international students across the globe seeking a high quality student and academic experience. Large gatherings of international educators show that this is under threat. We’ve noticed a dramatic shift even in the last three years with universities in Europe in particular looking to capitalise on the increasingly negative perceptions of the UK as a study destination as well as react to unfavourable conditions in their own country, such as in Germany where demographics are at odds with high levels of enrolment. Just last month at the EAIE Conference in Prague we saw that talk has begun to turn in many European countries from traditional small scale mobility and exchange programmes to active recruitment of international students, cutting into the market share traditionally occupied by the big four; USA, UK, Canada and Australia.

The UK higher education sector is going to have to work harder in order to succeed in the face of the gains made by other countries with increasingly (and competitively) open and welcoming attitudes towards international students. Without help from the current government to attract prospects from overseas, UK institutions are going to have to do more for themselves, and in addition more enthusiastically embrace the responsibility that they all have to uphold and enhance the reputation of the UK higher education sector as a whole.

It is clear from the findings of UUK and our own research that each institution has a role to play in marketing their country as a desirable destination for international students. Clearly articulating the benefits of studying in the UK is the responsibility of all higher education institutions. Recognition that international students are a diverse group within which different messages will resonate with different people is crucial. It is up to the UK higher education sector to take the necessary steps to communicate to international students that despite what it may seem, they are indeed valued and welcome in the UK.

Duncan Findlater

Director, Client and External Relations


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