by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 16
August 2022
Idea
16:30

Britain can become an education super-exporter

Our universities have a unique appeal for foreign students
by Peter Franklin
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Are British students being displaced from our universities by foreigners? According to a Sunday Times report by Sian Griffiths and Anna Lombardi, the most prestigious institutions — including Oxford and Cambridge — are now rejecting UK applicants at record levels. 

The share of international students at the UK’s top universities is reaching new highs, a trend which shows few signs of slowing. Institutions can earn much more from foreign students than the home crowd — and the gap is growing. Given that the cost-of-living crisis applies as much to universities as it does to households, the pressure to maximise tuition fee income isn’t going away.

Nor does there seem to be much limit to the demand for a British university education. Depending on who you ask, the UK is the second or third most popular destination for international students. And as countries like China, India and Nigeria become richer, and hungrier for highly qualified workers, the market can only grow. It’s worth noting that as the US has declined as a preferred destination for Chinese students, the UK has become more popular. 

There’s every reason to think that the UK will continue to be an attractive destination. There’s the language, of course. Then there’s the position of British universities in the international rankings, second only to the US, but without the extreme financial cost. We also haven’t gone as far down the woke rabbit hole as American academia has. Finally, there’s the “despite Brexit” factor — despite (or, arguably, because of) Brexit we’ve become more relaxed about immigration.

But is there a point at which we say enough is enough? Or is too late to set limits? As Griffiths and Lombardi point out, 70% of students at the London School of Economics are from overseas. And even we count the LSE as a special case, there are other institutions at the 40% mark. 

Given the potential for further internationalisation, would we be willing to accept a scenario in which British students became a minority in their own universities? This most progressive of slice of the electorate is an unlikely breeding ground for a nativist backlash. But what would happen if current trends lead to an absolute decline in the proportion of Britons who get to go to college?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Instead of fearing the foreign influx we could just accept that higher ed is something we’re good at and make a strategic national decision to expand the sector. We could become to the global economy what Greece was to the Roman Empire. 

But perhaps that’s too effete an image. Instead, the expansion of academia should take on a harder edge, being used to build-up a skills-and-innovation base in hi-tech sectors where the British economy is currently weak. This would require that we take industrial policy seriously — not to mention levelling-up. But in a world where competitive advantages are hard to come by, we have one in our universities. Let’s exploit it to the hilt. 

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Clara B
Clara B
1 month ago

This all sounds very positive (especially this: ‘Instead of fearing the foreign influx we could just accept that higher ed. is something we’re good at and make a strategic national decision to expand the sector’) but I’m not wholly convinced. I teach international students at a UK university. Most have terrible English and woefully under-developed academic skills. Plagiarism is rife. In their home countries, I suspect they’re high fliers. Here, they are middling (at best). I also suspect many (most?) study here primarily because they can stay after graduation (and, if they stay here long enough, they secure the right to stay here longer-term). If we expand the HE sector, we expand the population even more.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Clara B

I was quite enthusiastic reading the article and now you have put me off. It isn’t an area I know well.
Are your students really so mediocre? How high is the bar for them to get a place?
In order to stay after they graduate, do they need to get a graduate level job or can they just work in a pub?
Do you know what % stays after graduation?

Clara B
Clara B
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Hello Matt, my students are worse than mediocre (most, anyway). I teach PG so, as long as they have a first degree in a relevant subject (and they pay the fees, of course), they can get on the programme. The govt recently liberalised the system for students -so basically anyone can stay for at least 2 years post-degree (more here info: https://study-uk.britishcouncil.org/after-your-studies/graduate-route). (I should be enthusiastic – the expansion of HE for UK and international students has been great for me, my skills are in demand like never before. But I think too many people go to university when they could be doing something else with their lives and I suspect for many international students, it’s a form of backdoor migration. I actually enjoy teaching and enjoy interaction with students – and I’m told I’m good at it – but I’ve had reservations about the expansion/internationalisation of HE for a long time).

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Clara B

Thanks Clara, very interesting.
I was just reading up on it. It seems that, as you say, you get 2 years free on a Graduate Visa if you complete a degree in the UK but you still need to apply for a Skilled Worker visa like anyone else at the end of the 2 year period if you want to stay long term and get points towards eventual citizenship.
It doesn’t seem crazy to have a route open for bright foreign kids to stay, work and live in the UK after graduating here but obviously we need to limit numbers so we don’t overwhelm our public services and infrastructure or further inflate house prices and rents.
Total net immigration should have an overall cap applied to it. My idea – as I’ve said before in these comments – is that the total net immigration cap should be set at half the number of houses built in the previous year. So 2022 should be 88k.
Personally I wouldn’t count overseas students or Graduate visa holders in the cap but if they chose not to go home after 2 years and applied for a work visa, they would count towards it.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Clara B
Clara B
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Sensible suggestion, Matt (re capping numbers).

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
1 month ago
Reply to  Clara B

Me too Clara. I share your concerns.

Last edited 1 month ago by Derek Bryce
Clara B
Clara B
1 month ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

Agree with every word, Derek (and, Lord almighty, how many attempts do students get to resubmit! And the generosity vis-à-vis extensions. I am amazed that anyone fails, frankly. Plus we are put under pressure to pass weaker students. I often feel slightly ‘grubby’ working in HE. Shame because I love my subject and it’s an honour to be part of something that can be transformative for some).

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Clara B

Me too, I left my first college because a manager needed me to grade (aka pass) a student’s paper. She basically had Google translated her work from Chinese to English with the result that it was complete gobbledygook. As much as I genuinely liked the international students there were many there who didn’t need to be at an English-speaking college.
Western universities have become undead and are no longer fit for purpose. Professors pretend to teach and students pretend to learn.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

This is really depressing stuff Julian.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

At the end of the day, ‘example essay’ services seem to be doing rather well. They must therefore have customers.

Espedair Street
Espedair Street
1 month ago

I had a very good student from China a few years ago who revealed that some of her compatriots were incredulous that she researched and wrote her own essays rather than just buying them.

Espedair Street
Espedair Street
1 month ago
Reply to  Clara B

It really is demoralising isn’t it?

Last edited 1 month ago by Derek Bryce
Will Will
Will Will
1 month ago
Reply to  Clara B

I taught post graduates some time ago and even then felt we were often being required to bend over backwards to get foreign students through when their language skills or rather lack of them should have raised questions about their ability to be on the course in the first place.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill W
Ian L
Ian L
1 month ago

Our universities seem horribly captured at present. Why on earth would anyone wish to import this?

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Interesting to read the comments from a couple of UK university lecturers about the poor quality of many of the foreign students.
My own experience (quite a long time ago) was different. US universities attract a lot of foreign graduate students into their STEM programs. In my day, most came from Asia, especially China, and it’s fair to say many hoped to stay in the US after graduation.
To get into US graduate school you have to take the standardized Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and do well if you want to be accepted into a top program. The exam is roughly broken into an English language component and a quantitative component. The Asian students typically did badly on the language part but would often obtain almost perfect scores in the quantitative part. They were enormously motivated students who would willingly work long hours and give up a social life for several years until they graduated. Not surprisingly, STEM research faculty loved to hire them as graduate students.
My sense is the UK faculty commenting on this article are in the arts/social sciences (I’m not sure). Perhaps that explains part of the difference. During my time in graduate school, most foreign students were pursuing science-based degrees. I do wonder why someone would come from China or India to study, say, sociology in the UK or US? Perhaps their motivation is not academic excellence.

Espedair Street
Espedair Street
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You make good points. My experiences with Chinese and Indian students is bad (though there are exceptions) and you’re right, I work in a business school. Things may indeed be better in STEM subjects. Good thing too – no one ever died from a poor marketing plan. A poorly designed bridge on the other hand …

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago

I think the situation is better in STEM subjects. I have several professional acquaintances, all from East Asia and with American STEM PhDs that they received in the 1990s and 2000s. They’re all absolutely razor sharp.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think it depends greatly on the institution. Foreign students at Cambridge are naturally going to ve a different caliber to, say, Keele University.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 month ago

Oh, how the Remain lobby bewailed Brexit Britain falling behind the educative powerhouse that is Europe.
Our universities would become laughing-stocks, students would flee and research grants would dry up.
Generations of young would be condemned to a 2nd rate education thanks to the drooling stupidity of the Brexit-voting, coffin-dodging untermensch who wanted a return to the 1950’s to satisfy their hatred of ‘furriners’ – or some such twaddle.
And yet, despite the fervour with which the Guardian and BBC believed this, UK universities are still attracting more overseas applications than any in the EU and research funding continues to grow.
Take a look at the league table, the Top 10 European universities for research:

  • University of Oxford – UK
  • University of Cambridge – UK
  • Imperial College London – UK
  • ETH Zurich – Switzerland
  • UCL – UK
  • London School of Economics and Political Science – UK
  • University of Edinburgh – UK
  • LMU Munich – Germany
  • École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne – Switzerland
  • King’s College London – UK

Few things could be more upsetting to the rabid remainers than having to accept that only a single one is in the EU.

Last edited 1 month ago by Paddy Taylor
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

Given we have a shortage of skilled workers in almost every sector, are there enough Clara Bs (see below) to be able to meet the needs of British students and expand the numbers of foreign students?

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

“despite (or, arguably, because of) Brexit we’ve become more relaxed about immigration.”
I’d have thought the figures might have changed because of the several million immigrants who could have altered the voting figures.

Hamad Kiani
Hamad Kiani
1 month ago

It suits British universities to make good money out of international students. But most of the foreign students earn such degrees that do not add specific skills required in industry. Liberal arts, humanities, business, IT, general sciences will not grant you jobs in UK or any other country. Most of these foreign students and a good number of UK home students end up doing jobs that have nothing to do with degree that they earned after spending a fortune. It is far better to stop these students at A levels/high schools and encourage them to go for apprenticeships, hard skills or trades. That will also help them to start their own businesses/work. A 4-year university graduate has hardly courage, temperament to start business.