Blog: why we value international students

22 May 2017

Acting Director of the Russell Group Dr Tim Bradshaw blogs on why UK universities value international students:

Why we value international students

The world market for international undergraduate and postgraduate students is growing – the OECD estimates the market doubled from 1.5 million students in 2000 to 3.1 million in 2014 and it keeps rising. Much has been written about the pure economic value of such students, and that is very important, although in reality this is only the tip of the iceberg. But let’s deal with the money first:

UUK has recently calculated international students are worth £25 billion a year to the UK economy and have a nice graphic showing the jobs and economic impact around the regions. The University of Birmingham’s calculation is that every 8 international students adds another £1 million to their local economy and London First estimates overseas students bring an annual net benefit of £2.3 billion to London. This is good tangible evidence and, given that international students support high value jobs, all around the country, and that tuition fees for international students count as export income (all big ticks for those running economic models), it should be enough on its own for the country to aspire to have a significant slice of the world market.

Perhaps what is less apparent though is the wider value of international students to UK higher education – and to the UK’s future prosperity more generally.

If we want the next generation to be able to do business globally then they’ll need the skills and experience to partner with, and compete against, the best in the world. A great way of gaining that experience is to learn with an international cohort while you are at university. It’s certainly better to build your intercultural skills in a lecture or practical lab than to ‘wing it’ while trying to secure a global business deal!

When they go home again (and the overwhelming majority do), returning international students create a priceless ‘soft power’ advantage for the UK, helping to underpin diplomatic, trade, research and cultural links around the globe.

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Many of the courses international students study – such as those in business and STEM subjects – are also critical for the UK’s future growth and innovation. Yet many of those courses would simply not be viable to teach without international students, which means they would not be available to UK students either. Indeed at some of our universities the majority of postgraduate taught courses (increasingly important for a high skill economy) just wouldn’t be sustainable.

International students bring new ideas and new approaches with them too, enriching the learning experience for all students, challenging orthodoxy and ensuring we stay at the top of our game.

They are also risk takers. At 18 or 21, taking the step to study away from home, let alone overseas, can be daunting, but those who do are also likely to be the ones who will think outside the box and be the innovators and leaders of the future. Capturing just an essence of that in the UK while those international students are here could make all the difference for the prospects of our own students.

And there’s a prestige element to consider as well. Around the world, students studying outside of their home country typically pay more than home students for their tuition. They don’t have to come to the UK to study, but every year many do, recognising the high quality education and wider experience they can gain here. In 2015-16, out of 609,000 students of all nationalities, Russell Group universities attracted 61,000 EU and 136,000 other international students – a definite sign that the UK HE offer is top notch globally.

Of course there are challenges. Our universities work hard to ensure that students of all nationalities integrate and have the best educational experience possible while they study here. We also recognise the importance of weeding out bogus applicants and ensuring the visa system isn’t abused – and we work tirelessly with the Government to ensure this doesn’t slip.

In short, our welcome to international students who want to study and research here is genuine and we recognise the value they bring in all its various dimensions. That the UK remains a top destination for the flow of international students is something we can celebrate as a core part of being a dynamic and outward looking nation.

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