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International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

RSS FeedA journey through time - Part 3

Posted on by Vicky Lewis

2014 - 2024

2014 - 2024This is the third in a series of blogs reflecting on my 30 years in the international HE sector one decade at a time. The first one (covering 1994 to 2004) can be found here, and the second one (covering 2004 to 2014) here.

Each blog is part reminiscence about how my career developed in the decade concerned and part commentary on what was going on in the sector.

This one brings us up to the current day.

My professional journey

By late 2014, I had built up a steady flow of consultancy projects and was enjoying the fact that my new-found flexibility (outside institutional life) allowed me to undertake a small amount of academic research as well. I discovered a virtuous circle between my consultancy and my research, each of them strengthening the other.

My consultancy work was mainly with higher education institutions (though sometimes with umbrella bodies), with projects encompassing different stages of international strategy development, from horizon scanning and market research, stakeholder engagement and strategy formulation, through to implementation planning. In addition to my UK clients, I worked with institutions in France, Germany, Sweden, USA, Australia and Malaysia.  

It was a consultancy project relating to the Malaysia campus of a UK university that sparked an interest in researching transnational education and, in particular, relationships between international campuses and their ‘parent’ institutions.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I did some research into the global dimension within UK university strategies, which I shared in a report for the sector, UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink? The report is designed to be of practical use to those responsible for (or playing a significant role in) the development of their institution’s internationalisation or global engagement strategy.

It led to various fascinating consultancy assignments – and sparked an interest in helping universities to develop more imaginative and effective measures of international success.   

Sector developments

Although 2014 saw a tiny rise in the number of international students in the UK, government rhetoric was isolationist and the recruitment environment remained challenging. The UK lost market share as policies in other countries (e.g. Australia, Canada) became more welcoming. UK universities started to set up more overseas offices with on-the-ground staff to carry out in-country (or in-region) recruitment activities.

2015 brought global discussions about the role of higher education in supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Transnational education became more mainstream and a growing number of countries round the world styled themselves as international education hubs, seeking to attract students from beyond their borders.

Theresa May remained in the role of Home Secretary and the ‘hostile environment’ persisted, despite the HE sector’s attempts to argue the case for a rethink. The shock outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum led to the replacement of David Cameron as Prime Minister by Theresa May and several years of confusion and uncertainty as key elements of the UK’s relationship with the EU were gradually dismantled.

Repercussions for the UK HE sector included a slump in the number of EU students joining our universities, withdrawal from Erasmus+ with its reciprocal exchange opportunities, and three years in the ‘research wilderness’ before a deal was agreed for the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

2019 saw the publication of a new International Education Strategy: Global Potential, Global Growth (still with a strong export focus) and, after much lobbying, the announcement that a post-study work visa (the Graduate Route) would be reinstated from 2021. There was a brief window of positivity between that announcement (September 2019) and the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, with its unprecedented impact on education systems across the world.

Geopolitical tensions were growing and 2021 saw the publication of the UK government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, with its ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. Significant cuts were made to the UK’s Official Development Assistance budget, rendering unviable many long-standing and valuable projects involving UK universities and partners in the Global South.  

Serious crises including the Taliban regime's exclusion of girls and women from education in Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Israel-Gaza conflict, are all continuing to have far-reaching consequences for higher education systems, institutions and individuals.

Alongside all this, the years 2020 to 2022 saw the world in the grips of a global pandemic. Its impact on the UK’s international enrolments was less marked than in countries which closed their borders entirely and there was a post-pandemic surge in international students here. However, the 2023/24 academic year brought a period of further turmoil.

At a time when most universities had become heavily reliant on international tuition fee income to balance the books, the government’s determination to drive down immigration led to policy changes (including the ban on Master’s students bringing dependants to the UK), uncertainty about the future of the Graduate Route and, ultimately, a dampening of international demand for UK higher education from January 2024 onwards.

At the time of writing (July 2024), parallel developments, also designed to rein back unfettered expansion of international student recruitment, are taking place in both Australia and Canada. This new wave of restrictions across three of the ‘big four’ destination countries is seen by most international education professionals as an ‘over-correction’ which may well have lasting negative repercussions.

As I write this on the eve of the UK general election, there is tentative hope that the UK HE sector can persuade a new government of the immense benefits which flow from having a more outward-facing, long-term, coherent and stable approach to international education.

Fun fact

There was a nearly seven-fold increase in Indian HE enrolments in the UK between 2014/15 and 2021/22.

(Source: HESA records)

Summary

The period 2014 to the present (mid-2024) has been a rollercoaster, at its nadir over the Brexit and pandemic period, and experiencing various twists and turns ever since. Many university strategies started to highlight a desire to make a positive global contribution but there was a growing disconnect between this aspiration and the political and financial realities that institutions were facing.

The final blog in this series will look ahead to the next ten years and muse on future developments.

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Simon Terrington

15 July 2024 at 21:07 (Comment 1 of 1)

An excellent blog - very insightful


     

 
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