Higher education is one of the UK’s greatest exports. Our island nation has long held second place in terms of international student numbers, after the US. Statespersons, artists, and leaders from all over the world have travelled to train at prestigious UK universities.
Aspiring and prominent researchers are also a fixture of the UK higher education landscape. As of 2017/18, 46,350 UK postgrad researchers were international (total first-year enrolments at this level stood at 36,080 the same year). Nearly one quarter of the top-200 universities by international faculty members in the QS rankings are in the UK.
Brexit, which finally passed after three torturous years on January 31st, however, poses a threat to this status. For one thing, we may lose freedom of movement for students and academics from the EU.
There is also the concomitant sense that perhaps the country is less open to others than it was. Indeed, the UK already scores worse than other popular international study destinations in terms of the warmth of the welcome.
Visa changes largely positive, though ultimately a mixed bag
It’s not all bad news, though. Certainly university administrators, academics, and students alike will have welcomed the reintroduction of the two-year post-study work visa in September.
Certainly, this is the kind of thing that matters to students and researchers when choosing where to study. Pre-extension QS data shows 77% of prospective international students would be more inclined to choose the UK with an extension to 12 months. 24 months, then, is even better.
This is something that UK universities would do well to highlight in the battle to attract top international students. Hopefully, it will go some way to addressing the damage done by Theresa May’s inexplicable inclusion of international students in draconian immigration targets.
Another seemingly positive step is the exclusion of PhD-level jobs from Tier 2 visa quotas for non-EU nationals. This must be measured against the potential end of freedom of movement for EU researchers and postgrads, however. While they would enjoy the benefits extended to other non-EU academics, there is the question of reputational damage. The more internationally-minded among us may well ask: why not EU freedom of movement AND lifted quotas?
Clear steps must also be taken to keep the talent funnel of EU postgrad researchers open. Masters and PhD students – and even undergraduates – are the researchers of the future. A clear path should be in sight for them.
Strength of UK HE brand persists
There are some in-built defences against any potential erosion in international student and researcher numbers. Operating in the language we imposed on much of the world gives the UK one such advantage. Other non-Anglophone nations (France, Germany, etc) with strong research cultures are perhaps a tougher sell to, say, English-speaking Indian scientists.
And then there is the biggest buttress of them all: the quality of UK universities. According to the QS rankings, four of the top-10 universities in the world are British. And there’s strength in depth. 28 of the top-200 in total – that’s 14% – universities are in the UK. A further 22 make the top-500.
Retaining this focus on quality will be key in continuing to attract international researchers and students to these shores. This is where investment-levels must be retained – though naturally this is a complex issue, given the concurrent demand for marketing budget.
Of course, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the number of international students and faculty feed into rankings. Lose these, and universities risk losing ranking positioning – as well as revenue. Lose ranking position, and you also lose prospective international faculty and students.
Mitigating the negative effects
There’s only so much universities can do to mitigate the effects of Brexit. Maintaining research and teaching excellence is naturally made harder if the best and brightest are put off. The question of funding also remains a question mark, given the apparent inclination towards marketisation following 2012’s tuition fee hike.
Taking the best possible care of international students and researchers is key. Word-of-mouth remains important, and peer reviews are gaining prominence. Making sure facilities are top-notch, support is offered at every step, and everyone is made to feel welcome is key. This is very much in our hands.
Ultimately, the challenge facing the sector is to show that the UK remains open to international researchers and students. In Brexit, the voting population may have chosen to send out a seemingly negative message. It’s up to universities to show that they remain beacons of international cooperation and togetherness.
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