What can the UK do to attract overseas students? Imitate Australia

A recent event of real importance to UK higher education has gone relatively unnoticed. When the Home Office expanded the list of countries that will benefit from a streamlined Tier 4 application process, it made it far easier for students from 11 countries, including China, to get visas to study in the UK.

This matters. International students make a huge contribution to our universities, economy and soft power. According to Ucas figures, 58,450 non-EU university applications were received as of January 2018 – the largest number ever recorded.

But the UK must not become complacent – competition for international students around the world is growing. To build on this success, we need a coordinated effort between universities, government and the private sector.

Australia’s example may be particularly instructive. The Rudd-Gillard government, acting on concerns that migrants were exploiting the education system as a pathway to residency similar to those currently under debate in the UK, raised fees and the regulatory and financial requirements for study, causing a decline in international enrolees.

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The succeeding government examined the impact of this policy – the loss of a third of Australia’s third largest export sector – and quickly relaxed the restrictions. Australian universities are now reaping the benefits: the sector enjoyed 15% year-on-year growth in 2017.

Australia is naturally a different country with a different economy, and its government has different political priorities. But it invested considerable resources in benchmarking and improving its higher education sector, and the results have made it an especially competitive international player.

If the UK is to emulate its example, it should start by highlighting the value of its universities and their educational exports by consistently and regularly reporting on them. The Office for National Statistics does not currently accurately track the sector’s performance, making it harder to gauge the challenges and opportunities it faces and to compare it to competitor countries.

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The ONS issues monthly reports on construction output, retail and a number of other industries. Adding education to the list would bring the vast contribution of this sector into sharper focus, particularly as it is believed to make the second largest contribution to the UK economy after financial services.

The UK’s performance in the global education marketplace is hard to quantify, chiefly because it is not properly benchmarked against other countries. If we don’t know how we’re doing in relation to our competitors, we can’t compete or learn from countries that have a more competitive offering.

To achieve an Australia-style turnaround, the UK must adapt to changes in the global marketplace. This requires a dedicated, independent body representing the government and higher education sector to monitor the marketplace and look to improve the UK’s position in it.

This will mean the Home Office being more flexible and relinquishing responsibility. It must be willing to follow the recommendations of this body, rather than oversee it. This may be politically difficult, but is likely to be economically worthwhile – like tourists, international students bring value and create jobs, and data definitively shows that they overwhelmingly don’t overstay their visas.

Equally, international students can potentially bridge the UK’s high-level Stem skills gap. But this will only be possible if they’re given the time and support needed to find work. At present, every international graduate gets four months to find a job once they’ve completed their course. This is difficult for even the most skilled graduates, regardless of nationality. In Australia, all graduates are given two to four years.

In the UK, years of pressure from the public and private sectors are beginning to have a positive effect on the policy environment. The expanded list of Tier 4 applicant countries is a welcome move – though the omission of India requires reconsideration – and shows Whitehall is taking international education seriously. But a further step-change is required. Unless we start benchmarking our performance, and giving the sector the support it deserves, we may find ourselves left behind in the race to educate future generations from around the world.

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