What keeps me awake at night…

This blog has been produced from remarks made by London Higher CEO, Dr Diana Beech, as part of a panel discussion at the #UKENIC22 annual conference held on Monday 20 February 2023 in central London. 

It’s not every day that I get asked to name three things that keep me awake at night when it comes to international education. But, as CEO of an organisation representing almost 50 universities and higher education colleges across London which are collectively home to the largest international student population in the UK, I cannot help but worry about the continued health of this important student community. 

Government policy 

First, I – like many others – am concerned about the future direction of UK government policy, with speculation mounting about potential Home Office restrictions on total international student numbers. While many in the sector would be willing to work with the Home Office to tighten up existing immigration processes and ensure that study visas are not being misused as an entry point to the UK, we must ward against any blanket number controls which would hamper our national growth at a time when we need it the most. We must also avoid any measures which threaten our ‘science superpower’ ambitions, together with the financial stability of many of our world-leading higher education institutions. 

As a country, we have worked hard over recent years to enhance our competitiveness as a global study destination of choice, defying the odds after both Brexit and the subsequent global Covid-19 outbreak. To implement any regressive immigration policies now would be to destroy the UK higher education sector’s hard-won global reputation and, effectively, hand a carte blanche to our competitors in Australia, North America and central Europe, who are all vying for our number one spot as the world’s best student destination. 

Student support 

Second, I worry that international students, despite being of immense value to the UK economy and more, are being left out of important policy considerations. As the cost-of-living crisis in the UK rumbles on, for example, it is clear that policymakers are not effectively looking out for students’ interests wherever they come from in the world. While the UK government is generously offering support to households across the country with energy bills this winter, this support may not be reaching students, including those from overseas, who are renting privately with utilities included, yet may still be facing unforeseen increases to their rents. 

Similarly, student maintenance support is not keeping up with inflation. As well as the 2.8% uplift to domestic students’ maintenance loans falling well short of inflation, not all UK research council-funded researchers are receiving the funds they need to cover inflationary increases. This is true of UKRI-funded researchers in London who, since 2021/22, also include international students and they have not had the 10% increase to their grants applied to the London Weighting element of their funding. This is despite the London Weighting being intended to cover the already higher cost base facing researchers in the capital. So, unless this increase is applied across the board, then London’s researchers, both domestic and international, are left watching their London Weighting lifeline being eroded away. 

Postgraduate progression 

My third concern is a long-standing bugbear of mine and it has to do with the tendency to think of international students primarily as undergraduates or taught master’s students – so, people who come to the UK for a short time, have a great experience, get their qualification, and then go home again. That notion of international education may well work for many people and, in many ways, it is also ethical seeing people take their knowledge and skills back to their home countries to enhance economies and public services elsewhere. Yet, international education does not always have to be so transactional and there are clear linkages to be made between postgraduate students on the one hand and our research and development (R&D) potential on the other. We would do well, therefore, when attracting international students to the UK, to develop clearer and well-funded pathways through to postgraduate research and beyond to bolster our R&D talent pipeline. 

The UK cannot become a ‘science superpower’ without the immense potential of its international student talent base. We have already just missed a major opportunity to bring universities fully into the oversight of the new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) by not giving it responsibility for teaching as well as research. Until these two parts of the Universities portfolio are reunited, it remains imperative that we use every opportunity we have to join the dots between the inflow of people and talent, and the outflow of innovation and ideas. The new DSIT must have as much say in the future of UK international education as the Home Office, Treasury and the Department for Education; the latter of which is, of course, already limited in its power to speak for the UK as a whole by its England-only remit. 

Ways forward 

Not being one to wallow in my worries, however, I believe that proactivity is key to positive policy developments on this agenda, as well as others. I am proud that London Higher was the first sector body to publish an International Education Strategy for our region. I also look forward to building on its recommendations with colleagues from across the sector as part of the International Higher Education Commission to ensure that London and its connectivity to the regions remains central to the future shape of the UK’s international education ambitions. 

Our country’s international appeal will not be built on complacency, but conviction. Now is the time, then, to put strategies in place to make sure we strengthen our international credentials for the future.