Last week, a colleague told a senior staff conference at my university “not to underestimate the challenges we face at the moment, they are hard, and they aren’t going anywhere”.
The message was loud and clear, as was the sense of concern in the room.
However, as we continue what is a particularly gruelling recruitment cycle, I think it is important that we try and find the positives in international student recruitment.
Mindset is so important as we meet challenges head-on and I am proud of the work we do. There are reasons to be positive pretty quickly.
Note this is written with broad brushes, based on my experiences and the experiences of colleagues across the sector. There are so many more and I’d love to hear from more people who are looking for, and finding the positive!
We’re amplifying the student experience
The international student voice is being shouted louder than ever. As international student recruitment professionals we have a responsibility to act on behalf of international applicants and we’ve never had so much material. The #WeAreInternational campaign is back on its feet and promoting some amazing stories.
The work UKCISA is doing to cut through the noise and put students at the middle of policy and decision making is constantly impressive. In student unions across the country there are international students who are sitting on union executives and championing all types of students.
The fourth largest city in the UK – Leeds – has just elected a former international student as mayor!
The NISAU Indian Student Alumni Awards are closing their nominations for student stories at the end of January and there will undoubtedly be some outstanding nominees across global society that graduated from the UK. You do not need to look far below the surface to find great stories of international students doing great things.
Working towards a sustainable future
We are building frameworks to make any future regulation work for us. This tells me our future is more sustainable, and on the way to becoming more assured.
There might be a readjustment to the growth we’ve seen in the UK, but the sector is now putting in place steps to control attacks around quality when it comes to recruitment.
The UK Agent Quality Framework is an excellent piece of work by several cross-sector organisations and my hope is that it will make it easier for universities to do the right thing by applicants and agents.
There will always be critics but for me, the desired outcome will be to either prevent (or at least put off) the need for regulation or it will be the groundwork upon which any future regulation can be based.
It is important that we recognise the limits of our control in the market-led environment we operate in, and the work is being done to ensure that the sector can be well placed to propose regulation around international student recruitment if/when we get there.
There is no room for complacency, only better standards
Universities can no longer take international students for granted. Has this come from a place of adversity? Yes. Has this come from a place of necessity? Yes. Has this been a long time coming? Yes. But it is here. Necessity can and will drive innovation to even better standards.
I am taking part in conversations around policy, process, and product that I’ve wanted to have for years.
The impact of international students can no longer be doubted, backed up by some excellent sector research and by the fact so many universities now dependent on international fee income to cross-subsidise to much of what they do. This situation isn’t ideal, but it does mean that the international voice is being heard, when it was previously taken for granted.
The worst of Covid-19 is behind us, and we have kept the best of a bad situation. In Spring 2024, we are no longer dependent on being overseas to conduct our business.
In the two weeks after returning to work from our Christmas break, I held meetings with colleagues and partners from four continents, 15 countries, and too many timezones – all without leaving lovely Birmingham where I live. If you want to be connected without going anywhere, you can be. If you want to enhance your connections by going somewhere, you can. It wasn’t too long ago that we were absolutely desperate for that to be the case.
Look for the opportunities
The potential for innovation and change is ripe. We are on the cusp of the next technological boom. AI in admissions and virtual reality in promotion is becoming a reality and it’s exciting to enter into the space where we are putting forward a seamless pre-arrival experience that has user experience at its core.
Five to 10 years ago we were accepting paper applications. In five to 10 years time the way we process applications could have changed beyond recognition. The potential for progress here is exhilarating and I am excited to see higher education catch-up with other sectors in the digital economy.
The UK is not alone – this policy cycle is happening in other study destinations
We spend a lot of time bemoaning the international student policies impacting students wanting to study in the UK – which is justifiable. However, it is easy for us to forget that colleagues across the English-speaking world are not immune to the policy cycle around immigration and nationalist politics, and they too, are about to feel the sharper end of it.
Australia has put forward better post-study work options, then retracted them, the Canadian federal government has just announced a cap on new study permits with a view to a 35% reduction in student enrolments, and the US is about to put Donald Trump front and centre for another run at presidency.
It’s certainly not all rosy in our competitor markets.
“Students are, more than ever, able to choose to study high-quality degrees in an array of new destinations globally”
Political change will happen very soon in the UK, and whichever way it settles, we hope that cabinets and policy can stabilise, become more cohesive and create an environment for longer term planning.
Global competition could actually lead to global collaboration
Student choice expanding leads to huge new opportunities in traditional recruitment markets. Students are, more than ever, able to choose to study high-quality degrees in an array of new destinations globally.
Universities across Europe, Asia and Africa are becoming more popular with international students, which gives the UK a huge chance to open up international experiences and articulation agreements in these markets for for British students and internationals alike.
There are nearly 700,000 international students here! If you’d have told us during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2012 that the UK would be home to more than 600,000 international students in a decade time (and likely to be for two years running) we’d have all been delighted.
This is a huge achievement, which had some sting taken out of it by the subsequent difficulties in policy, but I am really proud that so many students have chosen to make the UK the place to study.
Our policy position is hard and frustrating. The pressure on international recruitment to solve the huge financial difficulties universities face is a monumental challenge but if you look for it, light can be found.
There are achievements to be built upon. There are innovators in our sector who should be listened to. There is opportunity out there and for me, maybe that is reason enough to be cheerful.
About the author: Francis Glover is the incoming director of global recruitment at Oxford Brookes University, and currently Deputy Director – International, at De Montfort University and member of the BUILA Executive. He is also feeling optimistic. Here he tells us why it’s not all doom and gloom for the UK sector.