UK higher education: time for an international rebrand?

UK higher education: time for an international rebrand?

As the German tabloid Bild observed: “First Boris Johnson falls, then the Queen dies – and now the British financial system is also shaking”. Those of us living and working in the UK find it hard enough to wrap our heads around the tsunami of recent historical, political and higher education related developments. How much more of a challenge must it be for people in other countries to understand the implications of what’s going on here?

This blog explores what recent developments mean for universities and asks whether the time is ripe for an international rebrand of the UK higher education sector.

The UK’s changing position in the world

However you look at it, the UK’s global positioning is shifting and will continue to do so.

Our relationship with our European neighbours is different, with new challenges to travel, trade and wider cooperation. Our position within the voluntary alliance of 56 member countries that form the Commonwealth was already changing before the Queen’s death, with Barbados becoming a republic in 2021.

New Prime Minister (at the time of this writing) Liz Truss (previously Foreign Secretary) has made no secret of her distrust of China. Slow progress is being made negotiating post-Brexit free trade deals with non-EU countries. And, while the UK’s support for Ukraine has been robust, there is concern among many about dwindling government aid commitments to the ‘Global South’.

What does all this mean for the UK higher education sector?

Reconnecting with core values

During the COVID-19 years, many UK universities took the opportunity to pause and consider what was important to them; they reconnected with their core values. Global collaboration, equity, inclusion, social justice, anti-racism, sustainability, carbon neutrality, ethical international engagement: all of these were high on the agenda.

This year, the sector has demonstrated a remarkable spirit of solidarity with Ukraine. By August 2022, 71 ‘twinning’ partnerships were in place between UK and Ukrainian universities. These minimum five-year partnerships will provide a wide range of practical assistance and help to prevent ‘brain drain’.

Helping to shape an inclusive Commonwealth

The changing relationship with the Commonwealth in the reign of King Charles III can be seen as an opportunity. Joanna Newman (CEO and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities) argues that universities, which have spearheaded decolonisation initiatives and protests over ties to the slave trade, are “a natural home for open debate and difficult conversations about how we can address the past – and shape the future – of the Commonwealth itself, to ensure it is an inclusive, relevant body in which the voices of all its citizens can be heard and heeded”. This resonates with the global engagement strategies of individual UK universities, which increasingly articulate ambitions for equitable partnerships.

The continuing importance of international students

Relations with India are warm, with July 2022 seeing the signing of a landmark agreement confirming the mutual recognition of qualifications. This means improved postgraduate study and employment opportunities back in India for graduates of UK institutions, potentially boosting the already rapidly increasing numbers of Indian students in the UK.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: UK universities remain heavily dependent on international tuition fees. This income helps to keep some courses viable at a time when domestic undergraduate fees (which have been capped at the same level for many years) no longer cover the cost of delivery. It also cross-subsidises university research.

It is very difficult to scale back a commercially-driven approach to international engagement when international sources of income are what keeps you afloat.

Mixed messages from government

Those working in the sector heaved a collective sigh of relief in 2019 as the ‘hostile immigration environment’ which had undermined efforts to welcome international students appeared to be ending. However, recent pronouncements by new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, have suggested a possible return to policies that restrict the number of international students (thereby undermining the Government’s own UK International Education Strategy).

The 2019 Strategy (whose goal of attracting 600,000 international higher education students to the UK by 2030 has already been achieved) itself reflects shifting priorities. It is, unsurprisingly, export-led and identifies five priority countries and regions: India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria. China and Europe do not make it into the top five but are designated ‘other important regional markets’, alongside Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Hong Kong. The name of the game is geographical diversification.

Changing dynamics with China and Europe

Many UK universities are still over-reliant on Chinese students at a time when they have been urged by the new Chief Executive of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern, to scenario-plan for a “catastrophe” in relations with China, with potential implications for Sino-UK research ties and student flows (particularly those in science and technology fields). This comes on top of radically reduced numbers of EU students choosing to study in the UK and increased barriers (eg visa restrictions) affecting both exchange programmes and the delivery of UK transnational education programmes.

To add to this, hopes are fading for the UK’s full association with the EU’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon Europe. Although the UK government has set aside money for a home-grown ‘Plan B’ to support research and innovation, the delay means that collaborative research outputs and carefully nurtured relationships with EU partners are already suffering. And universities fear this budget may be vulnerable if the government needs to cut costs.

Is UK higher education in a position to rebrand itself internationally?

The UK higher education sector is facing significant financial challenges and it is unclear how the ever-shifting political situation will play out for universities. Given this uncertainty, a major international rebrand may be a step too far. However, it is to be hoped that, amid all the turmoil and change, UK universities can hold onto fundamental principles such as global collaboration, inclusivity, diversity, innovation, reciprocal learning and mutual respect.

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Vicky Lewis
Vicky Lewis Consulting, United KingdomVicky is an independent consultant who works with higher education institutions on the development of their internationalisation strategies.