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What went wrong with international education in the UK?


Commentating on the state of international education in the United Kingdom since 2019 resembles something akin to a slow-motion car crash as post-study work visas, hailed as essential for the sustained growth of international student recruitment, have become the sector’s de facto crutch in the absence of a strategy to support international graduates’ transition to successful careers back in their home countries.

The UK sector now waits anxiously for 14 May when the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) reports to government, following an expedited review of the UK Graduate Route with the CEO of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern quoted as saying that there is “a very high risk of a manifesto from the Conservative Party that includes a commitment to removing the Graduate Route”. The Labour Party is likely to follow suit, in a fight to win the ‘Red Wall’ (traditionally Labour-voting areas that swung to the Conservatives after Brexit).

With UK higher education institutions already facing significant cost cutting and redundancies, we should all question how we got here. With record numbers of international students and the UK emerging from the pandemic unscathed, those working in international education are right to ask those purporting to act in their interests: ‘What went wrong?’

Consider the timeline laid out below.

2019: A cause for celebration as the UK reinstates post-study work

Amid the sector’s celebrations surrounding the reinstatement of post-study work, a critical statistic has often been overlooked. According to the Migration Advisory Committee, a staggering 96% of international students returned to their home countries after graduating in 2018.

Even with the reinstatement of post-study work opportunities in 2019, in 2022 only 14% of international students opted for the UK Graduate Route, 86% returning home on graduation.

With open borders, higher-than-normal domestic enrolment numbers, partly due to the A-level results debacle, strong international applications and, in most cases, universities reporting at least half of international students stayed on campus, the UK higher education institutions avoided the worst of the global pandemic.

2020: Things are looking up

In the 2020-21 academic year, the UK maintained its position as the top destination for Chinese students for the third consecutive year. According to an Education International Cooperation Group survey, 30% of students preferred Britain, surpassing the United States, which previously held favoured status. Moreover, applications from India increased by 13%, and there was a notable surge in applications from emerging markets, an increase of 83% from Nigeria and a 53% rise from Pakistan.

With deferrals from the 2020-21 academic year and record-high UK university applications for 2021-22, the future looked bright for UK institutions. Additionally, considering UK population data, the next decade looked set to witness a record number of 18-year-olds seeking higher education opportunities.

2021: What about the competition?

In 2021 Asia Careers Group published “After Brexit, a fork in the road for UK higher education”. The research was part of a series examining the four major English-speaking destinations for international education. Over a period of three months we explored scenarios such as “Could Australia be the student mobility comeback kid?” and “International recruitment – Is Canada facing a big squeeze?” alongside The US eagle could soar again”. In September 2021, we followed up with “International students: UK must make hay while the sun shines”. In each article, we stressed the importance of the UK maintaining the competitive edge it had acquired during the pandemic.

Central to this was the necessity for the UK to differentiate its offerings from other major English-speaking markets, particularly by enhancing support for international students, especially supporting their employability back in their home countries and understanding their post-graduation international outcomes.

Tribal Group echoed this sentiment in their 2021 report, highlighting the increasing significance of employability outcomes for students in today’s landscape. They noted: “International recruitment has seen a growing emphasis on return on investment, making employability not just important for students but also for higher education institutions.”

Emphasising employability not only enhances student satisfaction but also fosters integration between domestic and international students. Furthermore, it plays a crucial role in alumni recommendations, effectively transforming graduates into brand ambassadors for their institutions.

2022: “All in the UK garden is not rosy”

As Sophocles once said: “Chance never helps those who do not help themselves.” This quote is fitting as the competitive advantage gained by the UK during the pandemic appeared to be dissipating from early on.

Data from aggregators, agent networks and pathway providers indicated Australia’s resurgence, Canada’s continued growth and the United States re-emerging on the scene before the possible return of Trump.

In late November 2022, key figures in UK international education convened for an exclusive event organised by the British Council at the luxury Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore. At the time, there was a palpable sense of concern regarding the increasingly fragile state of UK international education.

Since 2019, UK universities had been grappling with the loss of approximately a third of their domestic tuition funding due to inflation. This raised genuine worries about the sustainability of operations, with institutions facing the stark possibility of financial strain during this challenging period, suggesting a ‘winter of discontent’ unless they were able to attract growing numbers of international students to subsidise their domestic counterparts.

Despite these economic challenges, there was still a sense of optimism among UK universities, fuelled by projections of a record year for international student recruitment. This was despite rising operating costs, including energy bills and salaries, due to inflation. This optimism may have been misplaced.

2023: Things go from bad to worse

There has been a notable shift in the composition of student growth in the UK over the past four years.

Unlike the traditional profile of Chinese students, who historically returned home after completing their studies, the UK’s recent international student growth has been driven by applicants from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nigeria, with a keen interest in working and potentially immigrating to the UK.

Against this backdrop, in 2023, the then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, imposed restrictions on international postgraduate students’ eligibility for dependent visas from January 2024 and expressed significant reservations about the UK’s post-study work opportunities in the leaked Conservative Net Migration Briefing.

While the Department of Education advocated for the importance of post-study visa options in offsetting study costs and bolstering students’ employability through valuable work experience, the Home Office’s doubts persisted. Even with the appointment of a new Home Secretary, James Cleverly, anti-immigration rhetoric and a commitment to reducing net-migration to the UK persisted.

If the Conservative government get their way and commit in their manifesto to implementing the UK Net Migration Briefing in full, which includes measures such as capping students on ‘low value degrees’, reducing the post-study work period to six months and capping international student numbers, could these actions if implemented potentially lead to the financial collapse of a publicly funded higher education institution in the UK?

Let’s also keep in mind that it is highly likely that the Labour Party will remain in lockstep with the Tories to win over undecided voters.

2024: Too little, too late

Only time will tell what happens next. What is indisputable is that the sector and those that act on its behalf have had since 2019 to future proof the UK higher education sector against damaging government anti-immigration legislation, provide it with a point of differentiation and competitive advantage through robust, representative international graduate outcomes data.

We know that the outcome of the MAC review is unlikely to be favourable. To quote PIE News the committee which was “originally opposed to the creation of the Graduate Route when discussions began in 2018, due to fears about the type of student it would attract and now argues data is suggesting these concerns may have been realised”.

So, if post-study work is severely curtailed and-or axed, what is the UK sector’s ‘Plan B’?

With over 50 UK institutions having already announced significant cost-cutting and redundancies the only way out is to refocus resources on supporting international graduates transition to successful early careers back in their home countries and this is only possible if the sector have immediate access to non-EU international graduate outcomes data, which they can use to mitigate what will be incredibly damaging headlines emanating from Westminster next month.

What is abundantly clear is that waiting another five years to act is not an option, particularly when the future employment prospects of international students, the UK’s international reputation and university jobs are at risk.

Louise Nicol is founder of alsocan and Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.