UK ‘should seek to recruit 1 million international students’

But country should also be ‘wary of complacency’ after apparently passing previous goal

February 2, 2022
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The UK should set its sights on a new target of recruiting 1 million international students after the latest figures suggested it may have already passed a goal set by the government, an event has been told.

But the webinar, on how to boost the UK’s educational links with India, also heard that the country had to be “very wary of complacency” in its ambitions because of the changing dynamics of international student flows.

The latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed the UK had a total of 605,130 non-UK enrolments in 2020-21, seemingly passing a 2019 target – almost decade ahead of schedule – to increase the number of international students “hosted in the UK” to 600,000 by 2030.

Due to the way the data were recorded, it is difficult to know if the UK actually passed this target as many of these students may have studied online from their own country due to the pandemic.

But Lord Bilimoria, chancellor of the University of Birmingham, told the webinar, held to mark publication of a report led by former universities minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone on UK-India links, that he would like to see the UK “continue to increase” the target, given the progress it was making.

“At the rate we’re going we should go for a million,” he said, pointing out that Australia’s overseas enrolments had reached 750,000 at its peak. With “our capability…we should be up there ahead of them”, he said.

Sir Steve Smith, the UK government’s international education champion, told the webinar that passing 600,000 enrolments was “unabashed good news” given that it had happened “in the height of the pandemic”, although he also commented that “obviously the target was too low” given that it “has been met nine years early”.

However, he added that “I think we have to be very wary of complacency”, partly due to the fact that Australia and the US “were in very complicated situations” with the pandemic last year and could see recruitment rebound.

Perhaps conscious that the target had been framed as students studying in the UK, he also said that any future goal would need to reflect the changing nature of how international education was being delivered.

“We must not underestimate the changes to the patterns of international higher education,” he said, saying he expected transnational education – where courses are delivered offshore through methods such as online learning or branch campuses – to grow significantly.

“Very few” governments abroad “come to us and say: ‘We want to send more students to the UK.’ Most of them say: ‘We need help in building the skills base.’ And that can’t be done only through putting people on planes,” Sir Steve said.

“So I think we need to probably expand the target, we need to think about how we can achieve more, but I think the 600,000 almost covers up the fact that a lot of the future growth will…also be through [other routes].”

Meanwhile, Sir Steve also told the webinar that UK government officials were “discussing all the time” what other measures could be put in place to “de-risk” the student visa system from fraud and abuse.

Asked a question by webinar host Lord Johnson about ways to prevent visa fraud damaging the UK’s reputation, he said this was “a constant source of discussion between bits of UK government”.

“At the moment the view is the dangers are less than they have been but clearly universities will want to be sure they don’t get caught up [in] this,” Sir Steve said. “The key point is making sure that we don’t put barriers in the way that then make other countries look more attractive.”

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