Beyond the speculation: optimism in the UK’s international higher education

Posted by Tom Lewis On 9 February 2023

Tom Lewis, secretariat to APPUG, reflects on the recent speculation around international higher education and shares his optimism as the sector responds to new challenges.


If you’ve been following the recent headlines over international student recruitment in the UK, you would be forgiven for feeling down-beat. 

Since the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released immigration data covering 2020-22, international student recruitment has been put in the spotlight. Government rhetoric shifted from welcoming international students to speculating on ways to restrict recruitment to so-called “elite” institutions, imposing restrictions on visas, or cutting dependants. The sector worried it was a return to the past, undoing the grand ambitions of the International Education Strategy.

It was in this context that the All-Party Parliamentary University Group convened a discussion on maintaining the UK’s leading position in international higher education on 25 January. The Group were fortunate to hear from Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Prof. Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University, and Prof. Sir Steve Smith, UK Government International Education Champion.

All panellists agreed that international students bring significant cultural, social, and economic benefits to the UK. Put simply, it is difficult to refute the £25.9 billion contribution to the economy, the soft-power impact, or the wider activities that international students cross-subsidise.

These contributions were recognised in the International Education Strategy which formalised ambitions to (1) grow international student recruitment to 600,000 and (2) increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030. As the UK Government’s International Education Champion, Steve Smith celebrated the achievement of meeting the first target nine years ahead of schedule.

A central theme to achieving these ambitions has been, and remains, diversification. Diversification is the answer not only to managing international risks but also to delivering sustainable growth amidst fierce international competition. Cara Aitchison highlighted the innovative work of Cardiff Metropolitan University in seizing the opportunities of new growth markets such as Nigeria, India, and Pakistan as well as developing new study programmes. Under Prof. Aitchison’s leadership, the university has recorded a 36% increase in international students: a testimony to their success in diversifying.

Strong appetite also exists for Transnational Education (TNE) which will deliver on the second ambition of the International Education Strategy to increase the value of education exports. The sector is well on-track to meet this target, as Steve Smith outlined his work to foster partnerships in the priority regions of India, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. TNE creates a further opportunity for universities to fully seize.

Nonetheless, there are concerns that remain. Prof. Aitchison raised the gender imbalances in international recruitment with fears of exacerbating existing imbalances at subject-level. A ban on dependants would further amplify this. Moreover, the provision of student accommodation, particularly in cities with multiple institutions, also remains an issue. 

Finally, there is the “elephant in the room” of speculation surrounding policy change. The sector has made enormous strides in achieving the ambitions of the International Education Strategy. However, as speculation grows over the measures the government may take to undo the strategy, the sector is naturally concerned about potential implications. As headlines reporting on the speculation are broadcast in global media, there are fears that the UK will be perceived not as the ‘destination of choice’ but as a hostile and unwelcoming place to study. In the longer-term, vice-chancellors are warning that limiting international student recruitment, or introducing additional barriers, would be “an act of economic self-harm”.  

Nonetheless, whilst we await further announcements, the sector should stand confident in the strength of our case and our ability to address the challenges faced. It is in our nature to respond to challenges with innovation and creativity. This has worked in the past and will continue in the future. This should give us all hope beyond the speculation.