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"The Governor View" - Internationalisation

From international students in the UK to transnational education, distance learning to overseas research collaborations, the internationalisation of higher education continues apace, despite the challenges of the pandemic and political turmoil at home and abroad.

Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data published this month reveals that non-EU international enrolments to UK institutions rose by 32 per cent between 2020/21 and 2021/22, driven mainly by recruitment to postgraduate taught courses. The drop of more than 30,000 EU students since Brexit was more than made up for by the 107,000 increase in international students, taking the total to well over half a million (559,825).

International students are seen by governors as a key cohort and essential to the financial viability of many institutions.

“We are looking to increase international students as are many universities across the sector,” said the governor of a modern university in the north. “We are thinking about longer term sustainability and opportunities to broaden the diversity of campus.”

Governors accept there is a direct link between the financial health of an institution and its level of internationalisation – particularly as fee income from home students is lower and the cross subsidy from international work is even more important. Some media coverage last summer characterised this relationship as home students losing places to their international counterparts. This apparent trade-off, however, has been seen as a “bogus argument”, though some governors acknowledge it may be more appealing to higher tariff institutions.

“At some old universities, it’s a space issue,” said a Russell Group governor. “There are only so many places so choices have to be made. During Covid there was a feeling that some institutions had maxed out on home students. For less prestigious universities, it’s different. They can’t demand the same kind of high international fees that ‘top ranking’ institutions are able to, so international students are a less lucrative market for them and the differential between home and overseas fee income is not as dramatic.”

The governor also pointed out that, far from undermining home student numbers, it is only the presence of international students that makes some courses viable.  “If a course is closed down, no one can do it,” he said.

The recognised importance of international students means that there is a keen focus on how to improve their experience. Support ranges from helping to investigate and secure sources of finance to support with visa applications and extra English language tuition and academic support in some cases.

At one independent provider, work is ongoing to use information held about students to target interventions and maximise completion rates.

“Groups of international students might have specific characteristics,” said a governor there. “On one level, they are more than usually committed but on the other hand they also face particular challenges; they are in a different culture, they are often learning in their second or third language and we need to understand very clearly how we can support them, not only when they join but during the course of their studies.”

The governor of a modern university makes a similar point. At her university there is growing interest in “when international students can be treated as a homogenous group with other students and where they might need additional support or have different needs”.

Student voice is also important. The governor at a Russell Group university in the north points to student representation on the board which includes an international postgraduate student.

“International students and internationalisation might not be a standing agenda item but we feel we do hear from that cohort,” he said.

While growth in international student numbers is seen as a key area of opportunity, governors are also attuned to the risks and the difficulties of planning in an area where so much of what happens is outside of their control. Geopolitical machinations, foreign policy and approaches to immigration at home can all affect the international student landscape.

The danger of becoming over-reliant on intakes of students from China and other major overseas recruitment markets is very much on the radar of governing boards. HESA data shows that in 2021/22, 27 per cent of all non-EU international students were Chinese – rising by 41 per cent since 2017/18 – while 23 per cent were from India (increasing by 84 per cent), and around 8 per cent were from Nigeria (up 76 per cent). Some commentators have also questioned the nature and level of Chinese investment in UK universities and research.

A serious breakdown in relations with China would have potentially devastating consequences, according to one Russell Group governor. “For a university like ours, if Chinese students stop coming, it would probably be the single worst thing that could happen,” he said.

Elsewhere in the sector, the risk is less acute. According to one governor, modern universities’ greater diversity and lower levels of income from Chinese students are seen as “no bad thing”.

Government messaging about international students and immigration generally can also present a challenge.

“Whether government policies change or not, when there were headlines about international students being limited or not being welcome, it gets picked up by international agents and potential recruits,” said one governor. “If there is a perception that there is a hostile environment, students’ discussions might not be about choosing between universities in the UK, they will be about whether to go to a different country. We are competing on the world stage in that respect.”

At the same time as inward international student mobility is on the rise, transnational education (TNE) is also increasing. HESA data shows enrolments based wholly overseas - students either registered with or studying for an award of a UK provider -  also topped half a million for the first time in 2021/22, increasing from 488,095 to 532,460. Included in this figure are students at the overseas campuses of UK universities (37,785), international and EU students on distance learning/flexible/distributed learning courses (138,940) and those studying as part of “collaborative provision” (224,730).

Within these various models, financial sustainability, quality assurance, student numbers and reputational risk are all considerations.

The governor at an alternative provider with a long-established study centre in Europe and other partnerships around the world, said governors were and should be involved in the early discussions about collaborations.

“Governors here get very early sight of discussions when they kick off and we have very early reviews as to whether this is a suitable institution to get involved with. There are all kinds of factors that need to be taken into account,” he said. “Certainly there have been some collaborations that have not seen the light of day and that didn’t work out for whatever reason; it may be that we felt in the end that it wasn’t a suitable organisation or it wouldn’t have offered what we thought it would initially. It is a key strategic and reputational issue and, of course, anything the regulator is interested in, the governing board is interested in almost by definition.”

Establishing campuses overseas is seen as one of the riskier models to embark upon. One Russell Group governor mentioned a number of examples where campuses had closed after significant investment.

As the TNE data shows, partnerships with organisations in host countries tend to generate higher student numbers and, as one governor puts it, “can be lucrative, particularly if you have a partner who is doing a lot of the work”.

Governors are aware of the increasing attention on TNE academic quality. The application of new outcome measures to overseas provision highlights the need to scrutinise overseas data and consider context.

“While you can talk about ensuring a good quality student experience, there can be quite a big difference in local circumstances and conditions,” said the governor of one northern university with a number of overseas partnerships.

The growth in UK-based distance learning/flexible/distributed learning courses is identified in a HESA insight briefing as a possible consequence of the pandemic. Globally, students became more aware of the opportunities presented by distance learning and universities may be retaining some of those online courses that worked well.

A governor at an alternative provider that specialises in distance learning said more traditional institutions seemed to blow “hot and cold” over growing distance learning provision. One Russell Group governor suggested the pandemic could actually have given institutions pause for thought over the online model.

“The experience during Covid reminded people that sitting at home in your bedroom logging on to a British university is not the same experience as arriving in the UK, being on campus, absorbing UK culture and meeting people from around the world,” he said. “Universities are unlikely to be able to charge anything like as much for online courses, so there’s almost a disincentive to make it look as good. I think there are also parts of the world, parts of Asia for instance, where distance learning is not regarded as a pucker education experience.”

HESA’s insight paper also points to Covid as a possible explanation for recent substantial increases in the number of UK students studying abroad compared to 2020/21. Those travelling abroad for some of their course rose by 107 per cent rise in 2021/22, while the number of students spending the whole year overseas rose by 80 per cent. The numbers are likely to have been boosted by the inclusion of students who had to postpone their time abroad during the pandemic but it is also possible that the release from restrictions on travel has spurred student interest in going abroad. For governors, it is a trend they would like to see continued, not least because it broadens horizons and is seen as a potential boost to employability.

Internationalisation is also a vital part of the success story of UK research. Nearly 60 per cent of the Britain’s research publication output in 2020 was co-authored with at least one non-UK researcher, the highest level of international collaboration amongst the G7 countries.

Volatile geopolitics makes the international research landscape more challenging. Heightened security concerns can have an impact on universities, for instance the demands of the National Security and Investment Act, which came into force in early 2022.

Governing boards must be alert to the risks, according to one governor.

“While higher education is internationalising, the rest of the world is fragmenting,” he said. “Universities have to think not only strategically but geopolitically and that is a sign of the times. We’ve had Brexit, Covid, China sabre rattling, the invasion of the Ukraine; all of those have the potential to disrupt the internationalisation of higher education.”

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