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UK Measures to Meet International Education Challenges and the Role of HEIs

So much has been written about how the UK has been facing complex challenges that directly affect higher education institutions (HEIs). Aside from COVID-19, which all countries have to deal with anyway, the UK also has to address the effects of Brexit on the UK’s status as a favored destination for international education.


When I last wrote about the UK a couple of months ago, I mentioned the issues and challenges that it faced in 2020 and how HEIs can help. Two months after that article, things have not changed so much although the government has begun to implement measures to address important concerns. And although the UK government is beginning to implement new strategies to help the international education sector, HEIs still have a critical role to play. 


The UK has always been one of the top destinations for international students for a variety of excellent reasons. However, there has been a persistent drop in its enrollment even before the pandemic, dating back to 2012. Among the reasons are restrictive student visa and work visa policies. International students graduating from UK higher education institutions (HEIs) can only stay for five years. Add to that the challenges resulting from the pandemic and the numbers would only drop. 


Indeed, the UK had a clear need to adopt measures to keep their international education enrollment up, and the good news is that there are developments in that regard.


UK strategy

The UK Department for Education and Department for International Trade teamed up to address international education issues by building on its 2019 strategy, updating it to meet current challenges. The goal of the 2021 “build back better” strategy is to reach the 2019 goals of £35 billion in education exports and increase the number of international students in the UK to 600,000 annually despite the ravages of the pandemic.  


The UK was actually on its way to achieving its international student number goals set out in the 2019 strategy before the pandemic struck.

MSM Research - UK Measures to Meet International Education
Source: UK Department of Education

There continued to be a steady climb in the numbers of enrollees up to August 2020, peaking at 56.53% of the market share for European students. However, demand for HEI spots for international students declined to just 42.69% in December 2020. This coincided with the official exit of the UK from the EU (Brexit), which effectively removed UK from participation in the Erasmus program.

Source: IDP Connect

The 2021 strategy also addresses the need to look beyond the EU market and focus on major sending countries such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria. The aim is to mitigate the barriers to entry for international students in those as well as other countries. 


The UK also launched its simplified point-based Student route in October 2020, which would make it easier for qualified international students to obtain a student visa in the UK. This route replaces the Tier 4 visa process and is open to all international students, but currently favors students coming in from Switzerland, the EU, and the EEA as “low-risk applicants.”


However, it is interesting to note that a major focus of the UK 2021 strategy is outward facing, i.e. education exports. The expanded Turing scheme enables more students in the UK to go to other countries, for instance. The proposed creation of the International Qualified Teacher Status (iQTS) is to encourage international students to train as teachers in the UK and then go to other countries to disseminate the “English-style teacher training.”


The Student route also restricts some choices of international students. To be eligible, they have to enroll in approved degree or postgraduate degree courses based on a set of criteria. 

These initiatives are all well and good when it comes to sending people in the UK and bringing exceptional students in. However, they hardly seem to encourage a diversity of students in terms of country, ability, and inclination to come into the UK. 

Nevertheless, these are all positive changes in the way the UK handles international education overall. The question is, will it make a difference?

The numbers are looking good, but…

The fact of the matter is that the UK saw a good recovery following a steep decline in international student numbers in the second quarter of 2020. Some investors are betting that the numbers will climb appreciatively once the pandemic is no longer such a great factor in the decision to come to the UK and for some very good reasons. 


According to the UCAS, the number of international students that applied for undergraduate programs in January 2021 was 498,030 (114,780 EU; 383,250 non-EU). Compare that to the January 2020 applications 518,370 (191,980 EU; 326,390 non-EU), and you see a decline in overall numbers, but not as much as one might have expected.

MSM Research - UK Measures to Meet International Education 2
Source: UCAS

What is interesting is that the number of non-EU students actually increased by 56,860 (17.42%), the slight decline in the overall numbers resulting from a drop in EU applicants by 77,200 (40.2%). It is certainly not the expected 47% drop in international student numbers predicted by one study, although it is more than the predicted 20% drop in EU students.

One could easily imagine that the rather massive fall in EU enrollees is due to Brexit and subsequent disqualification from Erasmus and higher tuition fees. Expanding the Turing scheme seems to not have made a dent or probably it’s still too early to tell. The thing is, reports show that the increase in numbers are largely due to the opening up of visa application centers.

The new point system for granting student visas that took effect in January 2021 might make it easier to apply. Students (both EU and non-EU) only have to show they have been accepted into an approved course, demonstrate proficiency in the English language, and prove financial support for the duration of their course. Some international students can also now work while studying in the UK as long as they meet certain criteria, and may be granted permission to work in the UK after graduation.

That said, the rules of the previous Tier 4 visa were less restrictive in terms of course options, and the slight easing of the work restrictions will not apply to all students, thus discouraging those wishing to take short courses in the UK but with tighter budgets from even trying. Whether this will have an effect on the number of applicants going forward remains to be seen. 

UK but with tighter budgets from even trying. Whether this will have an effect on the number of applicants going forward remains to be seen.

The bottom line: HEIs need to act

The UK has been gearing up for changes in its international education strategies even before the pandemic in light of its recent decline as a top destination for foreign students, but these are not going to produce significant effects immediately. I might even argue that some of the changes in policies might cause the numbers to shrink in the first few months. 


While it is certainly prudent to plan for the long term, even a short-term drop in international student numbers can make it more difficult for HEIs to recover from the ravages of the pandemic. They cannot rely on broad policy changes to help them make up their numbers and avoid a disastrous drop in enrollment. 


HEIs in the UK have to take proactive measures to increase the potential population of students in targeted countries such as India. 


One possible measure is to provide pathways program for students to learn English in their home countries to ensure they meet the language requirements of the new point system for student visas. Another is to forge curriculum-sharing partnerships with foreign institutions to help students acquire credits towards a degree favored under the UK international education strategy, thus ensuring these students will go to a partner HEI in the UK when they become eligible for a student visa. 


Pathway programs can take many forms, but the end goal is always to open up markets and make it attractive for more students to enroll in a particular HEI. Institutions in the UK that are able to make strategic alliances with counterparts in other countries are creating their own opportunities for growth. 


There is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel with the rollout of vaccines, and there is still high interest in international education. However, HEIs will need to make adjustments to their policies to allow students to work, ensure employability after graduation, provide scholarships and internship opportunities, and develop shorter programs and upskilling offerings. 


Will UK HEIs step up to the plate? I am confident that they will. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM


Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 

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