I recently initiated a debate in the Lords on the value to the United Kingdom of higher education as an export. This refers to transactions between UK residents and non-residents and encompasses income from overseas students in the UK as well as from campuses and programmes established in other countries by UK universities and institutions of higher education. You can read the debate here.
The export of higher education is valuable to the UK, not only economically, but also educationally and politically. Economically, it is one of one of the nation’s most successful services, not only in bringing in income to universities, but also to local economies. Educationally, overseas students serve to ensure the viability of some courses, especially in STEM subjects, as well as contributing to research. Politically, the export of HE constitutes the major source of soft power for the UK. Graduates of UK universities are to be found occupying leading positions in government and business around the globe. It also helps with trade as those who have graduated from UK HE institutions are also positively disposed towards doing trade with the UK.
Exporting higher education has been a success story, but it is now under threat. We are already losing market share. Australia may already have overtaken us as the second most successful nation, after the US, for recruiting overseas students. We are hardly managing to exploit a notable increase in mobility among overseas students. A rise in recruitment of Chinese students masks a significant decline in recruitment from other countries, not least India. We cannot sustain the recruitment from the Chinese market as the 18-22 age cohort in China in set to decline. The future, in short, does not look positive.
We are held back by policies adopted by the Home Office. Removing overseas students from the migration figures would be a positive step. So too would being more generous in offering post-study work opportunities. Cutting back on post-study work opportunities in 2012 sent out the wrong signal, something exploited by our competitors who offer more attractive opportunities. Australia and Canada are proving especially active in recruitment. There are other steps we can take, as I outlined in my speech, including in offering more scholarships to students from developing countries to study in the UK. Above all, though, there needs to be a culture shift on the part of the Home Office, with the UK sending out the message that overseas students are not only welcomed, but also are valued. That message was echoed from all sides of the House.