Australia is about to overtake the UK as the second most popular host country for international higher education students, or so new research tells us. But the situation is not as clear cut as it seems.
The predictions are based on Unesco Institute for Statistics data, which is far from perfect. Although it is the most comprehensive set of global student mobility data, it excludes Erasmus+ students and those studying at private institutions in the UK. It fails to capture the true size of the international student population here, which is closer to half a million.
International students continue to hold UK education in high regard – the success of the British Council’s Study UK: Discover You campaign, and tireless work of UK universities has seen applications for undergraduate places and the number of student visas granted increase by 5% over the last 12 months.
But quibbling over the exact numbers is missing the message – the UK is losing its share of globally mobile students. It’s not just Australia that is gaining ground on the UK, the UIS data reveals that student recruitment to other countries – often those previously thought of as sources of international students rather than hosts – is rising sharply too. Malaysia, China and the United Arab Emirates, as well as more established hosts such as Canada, Netherlands and Germany, are increasingly popular study destinations.
These numbers show that international higher education is not the preserve of a small number of countries, and nor should it be. Students now have more choice about where and how they can study, and the quality and provision of higher education in many traditional sending countries is such that they are now attractive study destinations for international students. This should be celebrated.
How is it that these other countries have emerged as attractive study destinations? This expansion is largely down to the development and adoption of national strategies, but it’s also due to the contribution of international engagement from the UK and other countries.
The recent growth in numbers to Australia is due in large part to implementation of an ambitious, 10-year, national strategy that was widely consulted on with all education sectors and across government departments.
Meanwhile, countries including China, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore have recruitment targets supported by clear, consistent, transparent visa policies, often reinforced by measures that can make the country appear more attractive to students and researchers (such as support for travelling with a spouse or scope to work during study or after graduation).
Botswana, Kazakhstan, Mauritius, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the UAE also have national strategies to further international collaboration and to support development of their higher education sectors and student populations.
Whether the UK comes first, second or third in the race to educate global students is perhaps not so important. Instead, we need to ensure that the UK presents an attractive package to prospective students, and that their experience in the UK is positive, safe and healthy. It is a growing priority for the UK to have an open, clear, comprehensive, coherent national strategy.
For the most part, however, the rise of these other international study destinations should be seen as a positive. It’s a step towards the goal of an international higher education system with more universities in more countries offering greater opportunities for more students.
- Michael Peak is head of higher education systems research at the British Council