Regional overseas recruitment targets will help level up the UK

Local authorities should work in close collaboration with academic institutions to make international students feel welcome, says James Pitman

March 6, 2022
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In 2019, the UK government’s international education strategy set what some saw as the ambitious target of attracting 600,000 international students to the country by 2030. In the event, assumptions about global competition were turned on their head by the liberalisation of UK post-study work visas, Donald Trump’s travel ban on some countries, and Australia and New Zealand’s extended border closures during the pandemic. The result was that the UK hosted 605,000 international higher education students in 2020/21, reaching its target nine years early.

Even this figure understates the true volume and impact of international students because many also come to the UK to study courses outside the higher education sector – though which may lead to university courses – such as at schools, English language colleges and pathway colleges. Counting all those international students would have seen the 600,000 target achieved several years before it was even set.

Such growth in international student numbers is welcome news for university leaders apprehensive about the impact of rising inflation and a decade of flat cash for teaching. International student fees have long subsidised high-cost STEM subjects and the construction and refurbishment of facilities. But few realise the extent to which universities need to cross-subsidise research: £1 in every £4 spent derives from international fees.

Moreover, consider the direct impact of international students on regional economies. Research published last year by Universities UK and the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that, on average, international students contribute the equivalent of £390 per UK resident annually. In some areas listed as a focus for levelling up, the figure is considerably higher. For instance, in the parliamentary constituency of Sheffield Central, it is £2,520 per resident, amounting to a net economic contribution of £290 million each year, and growing.

When he was vice-chancellor at the University of East Anglia, Edward Acton often quoted the statistic that every 10 international students sustain six UK jobs – and half of those are in the local economy. Hence, town halls and regional mayors should be every bit as interested in international student recruitment as they are in inward investment by global companies.

As the government’s efforts to level up the regions gathers momentum, it should consider introducing regional (as well as revised national) targets for international student recruitment. This would further focus minds and drive policy change. It would make future opportunities and the planning required to take them more tangible for institutions and local areas. That planning ranges from considerations of new university facilities and accommodation to regional inward investment strategies.

There is also scope to specifically match the recruitment of international students to local needs, especially in areas of skills shortages. A skilled international graduate workforce could create local jobs and start-up companies, for instance – as well as plug recruitment gaps in areas such as health and social care. 

We need the devolved authorities that will drive levelling up to formally recognise the importance of the international students – not just undergraduates and postgraduates but also students in all the other sectors of international education. They all contribute, albeit in different ways, to regional transformation.

Of course, setting targets is one thing and achieving them is quite another. And regions do not have control over visa or funding policy. But there are other things they can do to draw international students. For instance, “feeling welcome” has always been fundamental in student destination choice. Local authorities could work in close collaboration with academic institutions to foster that feeling by improving the student experience in their towns and cities.

There are regions where this is already underway and could be amplified further. Most notably, the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales have long recognised the value of international students to their institutions and economies and have ensured that political will and visitor strategies align with universities’ own recruitment drives. 

In the levelling up heartlands, Teesside Council has invested in an academic coordinator to support the induction of Durham University international students studying with pathway provider Study Group at the university’s International Study Centre in Stockton-on-Tees, 35 miles away. Tours of Durham, meetings with the local mayor and local discount cards are all tangible signs of welcome. 

With imagination, other cities and regions could create their own versions of these approaches. They should draw on links with charities, businesses and global alumni who have settled locally to create a supportive bridge for students to their new academic home. Giving the regions a visible target will encourage such collaborations, potentially allowing them to compete with the big urban centres – especially London, where international students currently contribute a huge £760 per resident: higher than any other region by a distance.

In short, it is time for regions to roll out the red carpet and embrace the power of international students to deliver change and prosperity.

James Pitman is chair of Exporting Education UK and managing director at Study Group.

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