The state of internationalisation in the UK

The state of internationalisation in the UK

Aside from getting the latest updates in international higher education and enjoying the scenic beauty of Glasgow, many of you will make use of the EAIE Conference to visit current and prospective partner institutions. If so, it might be useful to understand trends and developments in the international higher education landscape of the UK prior to your time in Scotland. Are British institutions really less concerned with student exchanges, mostly focused on recruiting fee-paying students, and building branch campuses the world over?

Global education and international reputation

European international higher education professionals who took part in the EAIE Barometer study assert that their institutions are internationalising primarily in order to improve the overall quality of education. The strive for quality is accompanied by the aim to prepare students for a global world and attract more international students. Practitioners based in the UK agree with their continental European counterparts on the importance of the latter two; preparing students for a global world is the most commonly cited rationale for internationalising among British practitioners, whereas attracting more international students comes in third place.

Improving the overall quality of education is only the fourth most commonly cited reason for internationalising among UK respondents, making it, together with Ireland, Switzerland and the Russian Federation, one of the countries where quality of education is given the least emphasis in the rationales behind internationalisation. Enhancing the international reputation of their institutions has a higher resonance among UK practitioners (second place) than among their fellow Europeans (fourth place). Improving the quality of education is less of a driving force behind internationalisation in the UK than in the rest of Europe, while improving the institutional reputation is seen as a comparatively more crucial factor.

Despite these differences, the most common reasons for internationaling according to UK practitioners can also be found in the answers provided by continental European respondents – albeit in a different order of importance.

International degree students and global partnerships

It is interesting to see that some of the differences in rationale for internationalising can also be seen in the internationalisation activities endorsed and pursued. If we start by looking at the content of institutional internationalisation strategies, the two most commonly included activities in Europe overall, namely outgoing and incoming student mobility, rank only third and fourth in the UK. UK respondents cite international strategic partnerships and international research and innovation as the most common activities in internationalisation strategies.

When it comes to increases in activity over the past three years, ‘incoming exchange students’ do not make it to the UK top five activity increases, nor does the quality of courses/programmes, even though these activities score highly in many European countries.

The most notable increase in activity over the past three years in the UK, as reported by the practitioners, is in the number of incoming international degree students, which only comes in eighth place in the European total. The latter is a fact that resonates well with the importance placed on attracting international students and improving the international reputation of the institution.

With the increase in private funding in the UK tertiary education sector in the early 2000’s, as reported by the OECD, it is perhaps unsurprising to see indicators that point to the marketisation of higher education prevail more widely in the UK than in most other European countries.

Limited influence

A further indicator of the different realities in the internationalisation of higher education in the UK in relation to the rest of Europe is the level of perceived influence of the EU on institutional policies. In Europe as a whole, 66% of the respondents see the EU as having a strong influence. In the UK this figure is only 30%, making it the lowest reported figure in the entire sample – even including non-EU countries. Bearing in mind the widespread Euroscepticism and low identification with the EU in the UK as reported by the EU’s Eurobarometer studies, this finding is not entirely unexpected.

Interestingly, however, to the question of whether the national level has a strong influence, the UK results are 10 percentage points lower than the European average despite a specific government strategy on international education developed in 2013. The Internationalisation of higher education report recently released by the European Parliament shows many cuts in public funding to the higher education sector over the past years, contextualising the perceived limited influence of the national level in the UK.

When looking at the content of UK government strategy, it can be seen that it specifically addresses international partnerships and branding of UK higher education. EAIE Barometer findings corroborate that these questions have been emphasised more over the past years in the UK than in most other European countries. While the EAIE Barometer report cannot convey whether these developments are due to government strategy, there appear to be similarities between governmental strategic priorities and the actions embraced and pursued by higher education institutions.

The UK higher education sector does seem to stand out from its mainland European neighbours in the lesser emphasis on student mobility and greater attention paid to strategic partnerships and reputation-building. All in all, however, the differences reported between the UK and other European Higher Education Area countries seem to be relatively modest, mostly encompassing the same elements although with different priorities.

Anna-Malin is Policy Officer at the EAIE and one of the authors of the EAIE Barometer report.

This blog post is based on the results of the EAIE Barometer: Internationalisation in Europe study and the answers of 135 international education practitioners working at higher education institutions in the UK. To purchase the full report, please visit the EAIE Webshop or, if you are joining us in Glasgow, visit the Registration Desk from Wednesday 16 September.

Learn more

If you’re attending EAIE 2015 in Glasgow, you can hear more about the higher education system in Scotland by joining session 1.01 Introduction to higher education in Scotland tomorrow from 09:00−10:00. To experience Scottish higher education for yourself, you can still join one of the Campus tours leaving tomorrow morning. Visit the Registration Desk at the SECC today from 14:00−19:00 or on Tuesday from 7:30 to secure your spot.

Anna-Malin Sandström
EAIE, the NetherlandsAnna-Malin is Policy Officer at the EAIE.