In a post-Brexit world, burdened further by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the United Kingdom has had to identify its competitive advantage. For several years now, the country has capitalized on its education sector.
Having some of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, the UK has remained a very popular option for thousands of students around the world seeking a good education.
A clear demonstration of the importance of the education sector to the economy, the government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson has appointed Sir Steve Smith as its very first International Education Champion. A former vice chancellor of Exeter University, Professor Smith is tasked with “spearheading activities overseas, open international opportunities, develop strong international partnerships in new and established markets and help tackle challenges and barriers.”
Last year, GMI Post interviewed Prof. Smith to gain more insight on this new government position and asked him how the United Kingdom plans to become the preferred destination of foreign students and researchers.
GMI Post: What is the role and mandate of the UK International Education Champion?
Smith: The role was created by the British government in March 2019. It is a job that involves the whole of the UK – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Wales – and considers all the different priorities that they have. The job also applies across the entire education sector.
While my training is in higher education, I will be involved in promoting British schools, British skills and educational qualifications, British educational supplies and equipment, as well as technical education. So, we are looking at all areas of education. The big point, I suppose, is to grow the UK’s educational exports.
I am in charge of increasing the number of international students from roughly 485,000 to 600,000 by 2030, and increase the value of international education exports from around 20 billion pounds to around 35 billion within that same period.
It is an ambitious program and reflects the British government’s view that the UK is outstandingly strong in education. The government wants to make sure that the UK is seen as one of the obvious areas in the world to go to if you want quality education. As the UK has left the European Union, my mission is very important because we need to show people all over the world that our British education, teaching and research are world-class and that we are a very attractive destination.
GMI Post: What are the competitive advantages of UK universities for international students?
Smith: Our universities operate in a safe environment and look after international students very well. All surveys conducted among students reflect that. Our government has also made it easier for students to secure visas, removed limits on number of international students coming to the UK, and increased the time allowed to work after graduating: two years for graduate and post-graduate students and three years for PhD graduates. Also, international students won’t have to leave the UK anymore if they want to move to a new school.
The strength of the UK educational sector is enormous no matter how you look at it. Some rankings put us at 4th among the top 10 of the world.
Also, 83% of international students say their UK degree helped them get their job. Whilst many other countries have very strong institutions, the UK happens to have several high-quality universities across the spectrum, from small specialists or colleges to music conservatories up to the large science and technology colleges.
GMI Post: Are there any projects that specifically focus on students from China or other parts of Asia?
Smith: Firstly, China is an incredibly important source of students in the UK, with 1 in 3 international students here are Chinese. China is our biggest single market. The very first letter I received as the International Education Champion was from the British Ambassador in Beijing who said how important it was for us to work together and that I should come visit as soon as possible.
I chaired Universities UK International, the body of vice-chancellors of all British universities, for five years and China was always the first country we looked at. That’s why I’ve been there several times recently.
If we’re going to meet the target of increasing the number of students to 115 thousand by 2030, a big component will have to come from China. British universities have also built very strong relationships there.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Tsinghua University sent over five ventilators to support our local hospitals. That happened certainly because of its friendship with UK universities.
GMI Post: What are you doing to support and revitalize the education sector during this difficult time?
Smith: Everyone I work with around the world is worried and we’re all grappling to deal with the crisis. But the one thing I’m proudest of is how well universities across the UK looked after their students.
At Exeter University, where I was once vice-chancellor, every international student got a phone call from staff twice a week to check how they were. If they were too scared to leave their rooms or if they were homesick and lonely, the school had food parcels delivered to them.
All our universities bent backwards on a human level. Located thousands of miles away from home while a pandemic was happening, some students chose to leave their accommodation. Universities refunded all their accommodation fees for the last two weeks of the spring term up to the summer term.
We have seen universities across the country invest large amounts of money into distance and online learning, while also making their campuses safer. The government has spoken to us about increasing blended learning, wherein courses are a combination of online sessions and on-site classes.
Recently, Queen’s University Belfast arranged the flights for Chinese students. The University of Manchester, Bristol University and Exeter University arranged flights for incoming students. They had staff meet the students at the airport in China, organized a receiving party at the airport here, arranged transportation to their accommodation or self isolation facilities, if needed.
A lot of universities, like Hampton, for example offering test-and-trace or test-on-track systems on their campuses for everyone. Liverpool University offers free COVID-19 testing. The priority, clearly, has been the welfare of students.