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Why The Sunday Times is wrong on international student recruitment

Jo Attwooll

Jo Attwooll

Programme Manager
Universities UK

Yesterday's Sunday Times front page story​ 'Universities take foreign students ahead of British' represented an unfair attack on the UK's universities and the high-quality international students studying in the UK. 

The accusations made that British A-level students are being 'discriminated' against simply don't stand up. Indeed, the article failed to give the full picture on a number of issues including trends in domestic student numbers and why international students are so important to the UK. It was, frankly, a misleading article.​

Are domestic students losing out to international students?

This is what The Sunday Times article would have us believe, but the data used in the story is misleading. The figures used cover all undergraduates, whether they are studying full-time for bachelors degrees (as is suggested by the piece), or part-time for a foundation degree, undergraduate certificate or diploma (like an HNC or HND) or even for institutional credit. If we just look at full-time first degree students, the comparable population for the international students journalist Andrew Gilligan is talking about, then UK students have gone up by 17% since 2008. The part-time and other undergraduate (non-bachelors) students included in The Sunday Times figures have been falling for some time, for a number of complex reasons. These include:

  • the removal of funding for students taking qualifications equivalent or lower to ones they already have

  • the recession, which reduced the numbers of students who could fund themselves, and reduced the number of employers willing to fund their staff doing undergraduate courses

  • the changes to undergraduate funding in England, which, as well as increasing fees, initially left part-time students without access to maintenance funding (they will now have access to maintenance loans from autumn 2018)

  • changes to entry qualifications for nursing, so all new nurses had to have bachelors degrees from 2013​

It's the effect of these which has reduced the total number of UK students over the period, rather than their substitution for international students (there's more discussion of this data and issues in evidence-based articles by WonkHE and HEFCE). Indeed, if we look at the proportion of 18-year-olds from the UK entering higher education (the 'entry rate') over the same period, we can see that this couldn't be the case: it's gone up in each of the four home nations, including by 23% in England. For disadvantaged 18-year-olds, the effect over the period has been even greater: the entry rate for 18-year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas in England has gone up by 51%.

What the piece has also failed to recognise is that although international student numbers have grown since 2008, this is largely because the numbers of students looking to study internationally has also grown massively. However, in spite of this global growth, the number of international student enrolments in recent years has stagnated. Over the past three years, the number of international students studying at UK universities has essentially remained static, and the number of new students has declined year-on-year. At the same time, key competitors have seen their numbers increase at a significant rate meaning that the UK is losing ground and losing market share.

International students make a positive contribution to their universities

The article also failed to highlight the significant benefits that international students bring to the UK's universities.

Recent economic impact studies show that international students generated almost £26bn in gross output (in on and off-campus expenditure) to the UK economy across all regions of the UK. In doing so, these students supported almost 207,000 full-time jobs nationally within universities and the wider community.

Domestic students also benefit from studying alongside their international counterparts. A recent HEPI report found that three-quarters of UK students agreed that studying alongside people from other countries is useful preparation for working in a global environment. This is crucial as employers seek culturally and globally aware graduates. The same HEPI study also found that the majority of respondents think international students work harder than home students. ​

International students are vital to the UK's global standing

The article also made no reference to the vital contribution international students make to the UK's soft power.

A recent report by ComRes on global rankings of soft power, noted that the ability of a country to attract foreign students, or facilitate exchanges, is a powerful tool of public diplomacy. Further, 58 current world leaders have studied in the UK. Having heads of state spend part of their most formative years learning about and being part of UK culture highlights how the UK's higher education sector is a long-term asset, not just locally and nationally but also internationally. This soft power will be crucial as the UK leaves the EU and seeks to build new relationships and negotiate valuable trade deals across the globe.

Further, having an internationalised student body is increasingly seen as a marker of a world-leading university in rankings used across the globe (such as the Times Higher and QS rankings).  ​​

Are universities recruiting poor quality international students? ​

The article notes that there is nothing wrong with Britain's universities seeking to increase their overseas student numbers but this would be wrong if that increase was at the expense of quality.

There are numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that universities are recruiting international students with the ability to complete their course of study. These include proof of English language competence and assessment of prior qualifications (which will differ depending on an applicant's country of origin and the school system they have been educated in). In addition, students must separately satisfy the Home Office they are genuine via a credibility interview and that they have the necessary English language skills for their course of study. 

Any international student completing a pathway course into a university would still need to satisfy the university that they have the academic ability and English language competence to complete the course of study.

The stakes could not be higher as universities are assessed annually (by UK Visas and Immigration) on the course completion rates of their international students. Any university failing to recruit students with the ability to complete their chosen course of study will see their course completion rate fall putting at serious risk their ability to recruit international students in future.

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jack lincoln
jack lincoln says:
10 August 2017 at 05:47

Woooow thanks for this information 

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