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International higher education beyond a fine British export

Rod Bristow

Janet Ilieva

Founder and Director
Education Insight

​The UK's higher education is renowned globally. Its reputation continues to attract international students and scholars, but the ways of engagement are changing. Janet Ilieva looks at some of the trends in UK higher education and elements of the sector's international engagement, and suggests that universities consider how any why students from other countries engage with the UK sector.

Higher education is one of the UK’s great success stories. Recent British Council analysis showed that since the award of the first Nobel prize in 1901, 38 per cent of the Nobel prize winners who have studied outside their countries, had done so in the UK (50 scholars), followed by the US (28 per cent, 37 scholars) and Germany (18 per cent, 23 scholars).

The popularity of the UK as an international study destination  enjoyed a continuous rise until 2012, when international enrolments dipped for a first time in almost three decades.

The international competitiveness of the UK higher education

While it is difficult to quantify the true value of global demand for UK higher education. Figure 1 compares the UK's international HE growth with the growth in UK's exports and economic output (gross domestic product or GDP) in the period 2000 – 2013. International student demand (measured by international enrolments in the UK) continued its growth trajectory throughout the global financial crisis of 2008 and significantly outperformed the growth in the economic output and exports in the period thereafter.

 Ilieva International HE figure 1.jpg

Source: Ilieva, personal analysis based on HESA student record, World Trade organisation and IMF data.

Methodological note: Figure 1 uses an index to measure changes in the respective variables over time in comparison to base value in 2000 (2000 = 100).


The importance of transnational education to the UK higher education

For some higher education institutions, the transnational student body has become part of the traditional international student landscape. Michael Peak from the British Council reflected that “in 20 years’ time, the term TNE will be a distant memory, as all higher education courses will incorporate a significant element of collaboration with international partners” .

Vincenzo Raimo, Pro Vice Chancellor Global Engagement at the University of Reading, predictsa substantial shift in the notion of higher education internationalisation in future. The distinction between domestic and international will become more blurred with a wider acceptance and recognition that universities' offshore operations are a fundamental part of the home institution. This is particularly pronounced in the treatment of branch campuses.

Failure to recognise them as an integral component of the same institution is common with policy makers, funders, universities’ league tables and in statutory data returns.

My earlier work carried out with colleagues at HEFCE established that a third of the international entrants to first degree programmes in England started their first degree overseas. The research found out that more than half of the Chinese (55 per cent, 8,585 entrants) and Malaysian students (61 per cent, 3,360 entrants) started their bachelor degree in England through a transnational education programmes or with higher education providers overseas. Most of these progressions from overseas courses take place in Year 2 or Year 3 of the respective programme.

I have argued in a previous HEGlobal blog that transnational pathways into English higher education counteracted the slowdown in international student recruitment. More than half of the growth in 2013 was driven by three countries and territories, all of which are among the largest TNE hotspots: China, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

China and Malaysia accounted for 70 per cent of the transnational entrants into higher education in England in 2013. For illustration purposes, international student demand from these two countries is compared with the UK exports to these countries in the period 2007 – 2013. Figure 2 shows growth in international student demand from countries where international recruitment is complemented by TNE pathways outstrips the rest of the UK exports to the respective countries. As such, growth in student entrants from China and Malaysia significantlyoutperformed UK exports to these two countries.


Ilieva International HE figure 2.jpg 

Source: Ilieva, personal analysis of HESA and ONS data

The importance of TNE pathways to student retention

Recent research from HEFCE presented as part of a comparative analysis between international students’ graduate outcomes in England and Germany at the European Association for International Education 2015 Conference in Glasgow shows very high international student progressions beyond Year 1 of a bachelor degree. Table 1 shows that international (non-EU) students in England have a higher continuation rate (93 per cent) compared with home students (92 per cent). Transnational students did even better with a continuation rate of 96 per cent. This is in stark contrast with Germany where 59 per cent of the international students completed their undergraduate degree (note methodological differences).

This analysis tells a powerful story about the academic standing of the international students in English higher education and it is a testimony of the quality of education provision.

Table 1: First degree (bachelor) students’ drop out and non-continuation rates: Germany and England 2012*

Source: Ilieva, ‘Reshaping the debate’

For details on non-continuation in England, see http://www.hefce.ac.uk/analysis/ncr/

*Methodological note: Non-continuation rates for England are calculated on student progressions from year 1 into further studies. Drop-out rates for Germany are calculated as non-graduation rate for bachelor degree.

Table 2 shows notable improvements in non-continuation rates for international students with the highest progress being among the transnational students: non-continuation rate dropped from 7 per cent in 2008 to 4 per cent in 2012.

Table 2: Notable improvements in drop out and non-continuation rates over time

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Source: http://www.eaie.org/home/conference/glasgow-2015/handouts/S1108.pdf 
For details on non-continuation in England, see http://www.hefce.ac.uk/analysis/ncr/

Clearly, there is more to the success story of the UK higher education than Nobel prize winners and exports (though the latter are only measured crudely by international student demand). This analytical narrative has looked at just some of the many areas of excellence of the UK higher education and it highlights the contribution of TNE. In addition to being one of the finest British exports, the evidence suggests high continuation rates for those students who travel the world to experience UK higher education. This is particularly pronounced with students who commenced their first degree through a TNE course or through an education establishment overseas. While TNE has allowed HEIs to reach out and respond to local needs of host countries, equally, it has had a profound effect on the home institution.

International student recruitment is intertwined with transnational modes of delivery. The boundaries between the traditional international and offshore population are becoming blurred. Synergies between transnational pathways to UK higher education and traditional student recruitment have ensured significant economies of scales across the largest international markets like China and Malaysia. The downside of this success is a dependency on a small number of countries –which may not feel like an immediate recruitment challenge, however, it is a challenge that UK universities will have to face sooner or later.