The UK has a strong reputation and tradition for recruiting significant numbers of international students into higher education, and has sustained a position as the second destination of choice after the USA. But it is only since 1999 that coherent policy positions have been developed on international student mobility. Prior to this date, decisions (such as the imposition of full-cost fees from 1979) were made on an ad hoc basis (Walker, 2014). Therefore, this study takes 1999 as its starting point to investigate the key question: does policy influence international student mobility?
This presentation is a spin-off from my thesis research which conducted a critical document analysis, using discourse analysis with a focus on how international students are represented in policy, drawing on both education policy and migration policy. Staying within the UK policy discourse, I focus on non-EU students only. I use open-access online data from the UK Higher Education Statistics Authority and UNESCO and world bank data to examine changes in patterns of inward mobility to the UK during the different policy periods, looking at particular indicators. I’m going to start by explaining briefly what the policy has been, and how it has represented students.
The key educational policies since 1999 can be divided into three periods, further complicated by the change of immigration policy under the Coalition Government. From 1999-2004, the Prime Minister’s Initiative to recruit more international students ran. This policy focused bluntly on increasing student numbers, setting recruitment numbers for a period of 5 years. It also introduced a national brand for the first time, Education UK. The brand sought to develop an identity for the UK based on “a dynamic tradition; the new world class; being the best I (international students) can be” and is “responsive; welcoming; alive with possibilities” (BC, 1999, p.1). This was accompanied by a programme of visa changes, facilitating applications, introducing a right to work part-time for all students (FE as well as HE), and facilitating post-study work. This was consistent with the Blair government’s wider immigration policy, encouraging immigration and diversity with a view to the economic benefits. During this period, international students were represented very positively, as assets to the UK making cultural and social contributions to communities and universities, and as economic assets. Their role as a ambassadors for soft power and developing Britain’s influence, building relationships through student mobility.
In 2006, this was re-focused and launched as the PMI2, the Initiative for International Education. Recruitment targets were still a key element, with increased numbers. However, it also introduced a new target: to double the number of countries sending over 10,000 students by 2011. There were concerns that the market was too reliant on a few key source countries. The extent to which the policy implemented this target, however, is questionable, as it also established ‘priority countries’ which received significant proportions of recruitment and marketing activity and budgets, several of which were already major source countries. A second innovation was the centralised focus on the improvement of student experience. The PMI2 had identified that students were often disappointed by the reality of education and life in the UK, and this initiative, by injecting small funding into institutional projects, aimed to ‘manage student expectations’ and improve experience. This often related to encouraging social integration. Finally, the PMI2 stressed the importance of other forms of engagement in international education through developing institutional partnerships and transnational higher education (where students are located wholly overseas but undertake programmes either run or certified by UK institutions). The PMI2 stressed the quality of education rationale, and represented students often as educational assets, contributors to an intercultural teaching environment. The PMI2 ran until 2011, but in 2010 Labour lost the general election and a Coalition government was established between the majority Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.
One of the key tenets of the Conservative manifesto during the election was the impetus to reduce net migration “to the tens of thousands”. Claiming impacts on social services, housing and transport as a result of mass immigration, leading to widespread “public concern”, these targets were introduced, in the face of opposition from Liberal Democrats. These impacted international students who are categorised as immigrants under UK definitions, in line with UN definitions. In particular, the debate on student migration was shaped by the bogus college scandal in 2009-10, where a number of students were found to be enrolled in FE and language colleges which were providing inadequate teaching, support and monitoring. Effectively these students were argued to be exploiting the student visa route as a means of entering the UK labour market illegally. This led to procedures being tightened for students, with the English language level required for entry raised, restrictions on part-time work introduced and the Highly-Trusted sponsor status introduced as a requirement to recruit international students. A further burden of monitoring and compliance was placed on institutions. In addition, the post-study work route was closed and border interviews were introduced. The tenor of this debate has focused on reducing abuse of the system and minimizing illegal immigration, but there has been little recognition that the HE sector has very limited instances of such abuse. The emphasis has been placed on recruiting “genuine international students” who are argued to be those who study, ‘contribute’ economically, culturally, socially and financially. While representations of students as economic and educational assets are still present in policy, the opposition of the ‘genuine’ student and the ‘bogus’ student as aspiring immigrants is quite dominant in policy discourses (although contested by opposition parliamentarians and the sector).
In 2013, the Coalition government published the International Education Strategy. This policy covers direct recruitment of international students, but emphasises transnational higher education, education technology, commercial relationships, and large-scale investment in global partner countries. In other words, it privileges “education exports” which do not require the long-term physical presence of students as immigrants. However, it does emphasise a warm welcome for international students, whose numbers are not limited or capped. A new branding strategy is Known as Britain is GREAT, this incorporated the Education UK brand under the ‘Knowledge is GREAT Britain’ pillar. It is essentially a visual campaign, drawing heavily on historical symbols. In contrast to the more intentionally modern iconography of the original Education UK brand, this evokes a more traditional image. 2013 also saw the introduction of two key immigration policy changes: the health surcharge, and the requirement for landlords and employers to check the immigration status of tenants and employees. This introduces further barriers for international students to live, work and study in the UK. This year, the Home Office further restricted the ease of application for extending student visas, forcing students to leave the country to apply. This makes it more difficult for students to, for example, study at undergraduate and then apply to a postgraduate degree, as they would have to return home in between periods of study.
So how has this impacted student numbers? During this period, HESA data shows significant growth in student numbers. The PMI, naturally, claimed this as a success of their policy as the targets for both periods had been achieved and indeed exceeded. While there is a clear slowdown in growth after 2010, coinciding with the introduction of net migration targets, increases are still apparent under the most recent policy period covered by the International Education Strategy. This seems to suggest that the policies do shape mobility. However, if policies were stimulating demand, we would expect to see consistent increases in rates of growth, which is not the case.
When the PMI first launched, growth rates had been on the increase for the previous decade. It capitalised on existing growth during the 1990s, which peaked during the PMI. but this was led primarily by the sector, rather than state policy. While the first PMI was still in effect (with the same branding, marketing and policies), growth fell significantly. While growth recovered somewhat, after about 2010 we can see a steady decline in rates of growth, coinciding with the introduction of Coalition migration policy. The introduction of the International Education Strategy coincides with a slight recovery in growth rates, followed shortly by another decline. This suggests that the overall pattern of student numbers masks changes in rates of growth. However, these changes do not systematically coincide with changes in policy, with the exception of migration policy.
Changes in migration policy have particularly affected demand from India. Looking at the 2015 top 5 source countries for international students from the UK, there is continuing significant growth from China, small growth from Nigeria, Malaysia and the USA (interestingly both our main competitor and a key source country). Numbers of students from India, however, have declined steadily since the removal of the post-study work route in 2010. Kemp (2016) suggests that the desire to gain work experience after study is a key decision factor for Indian students, who are therefore deterred by this lack of opportunity in the UK. It is notable that this does not appear to have affected demand from China. Also, that the UK is able to attract students from these countries is not necessarily impacted by policy. All 5 of these countries make the world’s top 20 for outward student mobility; they are among the biggest global senders of students. That the UK has large numbers of students from these countries is not therefore a testament to the UK’s pulling power or effective international education policies; it is a function of demand. This data also shows a slight reduction in overall outward mobility from India.
There are other indicators which can help to evaluate the impact of policy on student migration. I mentioned that one of the targets of PMI2 was to double the number of countries sending over 10,000 students to the UK. HESA numbers clearly indicate that this target was not achieved. Only 1 Hong Kong, was added). This suggests that this particular policy failed to significantly alter patterns of demand in terms of which source country students come from.
Another key indicator is in the growth of transnational higher education. Since data began to be collected on offshore students in 2007-8, there has clearly been a rapid growth in this body of students. This is in line with the policy priorities of both the PMI2 and the International Education Strategy. While it is unlikely that this indicates students are choosing TNHE instead of global mobility, it does suggest that growth in TNHE is more politically convenient for the UK than growth in international student mobility.
Placing the UK in the context of the rest of the world helps to explain why the UK experiences overall increasing numbers but declining rates of growth. It is apparent that over this period, overall rates of global student mobility were increasing. Indeed, during the first PMI, market share actually fell by 3% (Bohm et al, 2004) despite achieving the increases in recruitment targets. In other words, the UK has failed to keep pace with the growth in the rest of the market. Instead, students are increasingly travelling to other destinations for international study, and non-traditional destinations are becoming more important.
The demographics of source countries is frequently given as a reason for large scale outward student mobility, and certainly China and India have large populations of 15-24 year olds. However, China’s young adolescent population is no longer growing, and growth in 3 other major source countries is only slight. This suggests that the UK may struggle in the future to maintain even its current rates of international student mobility, let alone to increase its market share.
Lack of domestic capacity for enrolling in higher education at home is also often given as a push factor for outward mobility (Mazzaroll and Soutar, 2002). However, again looking at the top 5 source countries as an example, gross enrolment ratios have been rising during this period. According to my analysis, GER is positively correlated with outward mobility (coefficient .06, p<0.0001). This suggests that as participation in higher education is normalised, participation in global student mobility becomes an option for differentiation, adding value in the labour market in contrast to domestically educated peers. In other words, higher domestic enrolment may mean increases in student mobility.
Equally, growth in the middle classes is a commonly cited reason behind outward student mobility. Homi Kharas at the Brookings Institute has argued that the global middle classes are expanding rapidly and the balance of economic power is likely to shift eastwards. However, Kharas uses the definition of a household income (with purchasing power parity controlled for) of over 10 USD a day, which a recent Pew report points out is also borderline poverty levels in highly developed countries (they also suggest that growth is geographically varied). My analysis based on 2011 data from the World Bank and UNESCO found a moderately significant correlation (.287) (P=.02) between adjusted net national income per capita and outward mobility. So there is certainly a relationship. Interestingly, there does not appear to be a strong correlation between GDP and outward mobility, but there is a negative correlation between the Global Inequality Index and outward mobility (based on the percentage of wealth concentrated in the top 20% of the population). In other words, the more equal a society is, the more likely students are to travel for their education – given a high proportion of young people in the population, and a high GER. This does not necessarily indicate a capacity to engage in international education, certainly not where current costs of a UK education are approximately £30,000 a year. Based on current exchange rates, that would mean a family would need approximately 112 USD a day in disposable income to fund a student overseas.
This may explain why only approximately .1% of the world’s population of 15-24 year olds travel abroad for their higher education. This suggests that there is room for expansion in demand in demographic terms, but perhaps not in economic terms.
So what I am trying to say is that UK state policy may have the power to put students off from studying in the UK, and definitely has the power to shape the discourse and representations of international students. But it doesn’t have the appear to be creating demand, or changing patterns of growth in direct recruitment.
The massive growth experienced in the early 2000s is essentially the product of a confluence of circumstances: open policies, high numbers of students, and growing incomes. It is unlikely to be repeated. As economies grow, and inequality (hopefully) reduces, overall numbers of internationally mobile students are likely to continue to increase. UK policies on international students could therefore be said to be meeting existing demand. They are not, however, creating it.
Please reference as: Lomer, S. (2016). International student mobility: policies and flow in the UK, 1999-2015. Presented at: International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion Annual Conference, Prague, 30th June-2nd July.
NB: There are work routes which graduates are eligible for: Tier 1 graduate entrepreneurs route – need a business plan; Tier 2 – sponsored employment, need a job offer and an eligible business; Tier 5 – temporary worker
Amit, V. (2010) Student mobility and internationalisation: rationales, rhetoric and ‘institutional isomorphism’. Anthropology in Action, 17(1), pp. 6-18.
British Council (1999) Building a world class brand for British education: the Brand Report. Manchester: British Council Education Counselling Service.
British Council (2010) Making it happen: The Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education. London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
Böhm, A., Follari, M., Hewett, A., Jones, S., Kemp, N., Meares, D., Pearce, D. and Van Cauter, K. (2004) Vision 2020: forecasting international student mobility, a UK perspective. London: British Council, Universities UK, IDP Education Australia and Education UK.
DTZ (2011) Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education Phase 2 (PMI2) London: DTZ.
Department of Business Innovation and Skills. (2013) International education: global growth and prosperity. London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
Geddie, K. (2014) Policy mobilities in the race for talent: competitive state strategies in international student mobility. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40 (2), pp. 235 -248.
Kharas, H. (2010). The emerging middle class in developing countries. OECD Development Centre, Working Paper No. 285. Paris: Organisation for Economic and Cultural Development.
Papatsiba, V. (2005) Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.
Raghuram, P. (2008) ‘Governing the mobility of skills’, in Gabrielle, C. and Pellerin, H. (eds). Governing international labour migration: current issues, challenges and dilemmas. London: Routledge, pp. 81-94.
Rizvi, F. (2011) Theorizing student mobility in an era of globalization. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 17(6), pp. 693-701.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Institute for Statistics. (2015) International student mobility in tertiary education. Available at: http://www.uis.unesco.org/DataCentre/Pages/BrowseEducation.aspx (Accessed: 16 July 2015).
Xiang, B. and Shen, W. (2009) International student migration and social stratification in China. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(5), pp. 513-522.
World Bank (2015) Databank. Available from: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.TER.ENRR (Accessed 15 November 2015).
This is the text of a presentation that I delivered today, in a symposium organised very kindly by Christof van Mol, Parvati Raghuram and Yvonne Raino at the IMISCOE. It was a very interesting pair of symposia with perspectives from Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. What stood out for me was the similarities in discourses and policies between these countries, suggesting a real shared global policy space. clearly these are navigated and negotiated differences in national contexts, but the continuities are notable.
Here’s a link to the accompanying PPT https://www.dropbox.com/s/8k099qgoz7wzfsr/International%20student%20mobility.pptx?dl=0