The UK’s new internationalisation strategy

The UK’s new internationalisation strategy

Back in March 2019, whilst in the midst of Brexit parliamentary discussions that resulted in the UK missing its original 31st March deadline to leave the EU, the UK government published its international education strategy. So, what does it mean for those of us working in internationalisation in Europe?

Soon after the EU referendum in 2016, UK higher education institutions established internal working groups to devise strategies and actions to address this seismic change and help navigate a post-EU world.

Institutions like my own, King’s College London, instigated a number of measures including assuring and supporting our EU staff to obtain UK citizenship for them and their families. In my role, we began to look at ways of rebalancing our strategic initiatives and partnerships portfolio, to more proactively reach beyond the EU and look East. China, India and the Middle East have been my focus these past few years resulting, for example, in the establishment of a 30,000 sqm joint research institute in China with Nanjing University.

Other UK universities have explored options to establish branch campuses in the EU (such as Lancaster University) or some other form of tie-up (such as Imperial College and TU Munich or Oxford and the Berlin government) that would ostensibly continue the same level of access to EU talent and funding as before. It has sometimes been hard to discern truth from rumour – remember the one about Oxford seeking to establish a presence in Paris?

A new dawn?

And now the UK government, after some sector consultation, has produced its international education strategy for a post-Brexit UK. It is telling that the strategy document is the product of both the ministries of education and international trade. And it is therefore no coincidence that its core purpose is to drive up UK education export income (largely derived from international students, transnational education and English language training) from approximately £20bn (23.5bn EUR) to £35bn (41.2bn EUR) in a decade.

It will seek to achieve this in no small part through a 30% targeted expansion of international student numbers – from roughly 460,000 presently (nearly 140,000 of whom are from the EU) to 600,000 by 2030. This, of course, will be even more challenging to UK universities when EU students will no longer be eligible to pay domestic fees and obtain UK student loans and numbers are forecast to drop. Unsurprisingly, the government strategy looks to target the ASEAN, MENA and LATAM regions for the growth in international students coming to the UK.

Whilst the UK continues to be the second largest recipient of international students globally after the USA, the increasing popularity of countries like Australia and Canada and even China have meant it had to address the elephant in the room: the post-study work restrictions introduced by then-Home Secretary and now Prime Minister Teresa May. What has resulted is a partial loosening that will allow international bachelor’s and master’s students up to six months post study leave and 12 months for PhD students; still a far cry from the 2 years being sought by the sector. But it is a start and more importantly it has paved the way for Teresa May’s successor as PM to hopefully further extend PSW leave.

Opportunities for collaboration

The government has also made plain it wishes to see English language training and transnational education income grow to help achieve the desired £35bn target by 2030. This could present an opportunity for European institutions to grow their collaborations with UK partners in these areas. Many UK universities, I dare say, will be receptive to establishing an income generating offshore presence in continental Europe, albeit not full-blown branch campuses. There is also the prospect of forging more dual award programmes that take advantage of the UK’s one-year master’s programmes, such as King’s College’s recent undertaking with Sciences Po, with students gaining two master’s degrees after two years of study.

As European universities follow the worldwide trend of offering their students more programmes and modules taught in English, colleagues may wish to explore ways of strengthening English language capabilities through developing summer school and other forms of short-term mobility agreements with UK institutions.

Financial frailties

It is worth noting that UK institutions will continue to be driven by a financial imperative that will become more pressing after the outcome of the overdue student finance review, which is liable to see a reduction in tuition fees they can charge and increased pension contributions to address the frailty of the USS HE sector pension. The savvy European operative will look to build win-win propositions with this in mind. Articulation and progression agreements could be one such route.

International education champion

One of the important enablers for achieving the outcomes of the strategy is the appointment this summer of an international education champion, someone tasked with building international partnerships and identifying and addressing challenges and barriers to growth. Let’s hope this individual is someone who has worked with European institutions and genuinely understands the value of Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and other forms of collaboration with the rest of the continent. European colleagues would do well to proactively engage with this person.

In the end, as the UK transitions, so will its universities. Amid change and uncertainty, it is even more important that internationalisation staff at UK and continental European institutions look to secure and build their partnerships, whilst understanding the prism through which the former will increasingly operate.

Keep up-to-date

Want to stay abreast of important developments in international higher education? In addition to highlights in the monthly newsletter, EAIE members enjoy full access to publications, research and more in our resource library.

Tayyeb Shah
King’s College London, United KingdomDeputy Vice President Global Business Development at King’s College London and a member of the EAIE Professional Development Committee.