With approximately 18% of students in the UK now from overseas, growing pressures on public spending and an increasingly unwelcoming visa situation for international students, there is no doubt that the HE sector is now at a crossroads for international student policy.
This year's event, which brought some of the biggest bodies in UK HE together for the first time, was well attended by a mixed crowd of university professionals, mainly from International and Student Experience departments from right across the UK. There were also a strong contingent of Student Union representatives, not surprising given the huge role the SU's play in welcoming and supporting students from overseas.
The UUK events always seem to attract great speakers and this was no exception. From Dominic Scott, Chief Executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs to Professor Nigel Healey, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) at Nottingham Trent University and Exeter University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Steve Smith, there was much lively debate on the topic.
Many ideas were thrown into the mix; the importance of international students to the British economy (spending £4bn in tuition fees and £5bn off campus every year in the UK); competing for students on a global scale, especially with the US, Canada and Australia; the steep decline in students from the Indian sub-continent to the UK; and the difficulties of assimilating large cohorts of students from one country into UK student life, to name but a few.
As Nigel Healey explained in his talk on shaping a positive international student experience, there’s already lots of data out there to show universities what international students really want: social spaces which are culturally safe, a sense of belonging in their host nation, both voluntary and paid work experience and, perhaps most importantly, a group of UK friends.
He explained how, at Nottingham Trent, the team works hard to not only integrate students via initiatives such as Global Lounge and Global Week, but also to flip the notion on its head and show domestic students the value of international friendships. "We're never going to achieve integration while UK students see themselves as the majority." Nigel added that UK business really needed to understand the vale of overseas students in terms of boosting exports. "Markets are expanding in areas where most of our international students come from and they have all the skills to help."
It was interesting to hear from a panel of international student and union employees on their own experiences of the system here in the UK. Coming from India, South Korea, Singapore and Zambia, they all spoke very eloquently on the key issues which seemed to be unscrupulous agents, the culture shock and isolation of studying abroad, visa and accommodation issues and adapting to a totally different UK teaching style.
I'd say the most dynamic and candid talk of the day came from Sir Steve Smith, tasked with discussing the strategic importance of the international student experience. He addressed this, in his incredibly charismatic way, while sharing his own views on the pressing issues, both political and financial.
"International students enrich every area of university life and the communities in which they live; and globally successful universities maintain deep and sustainable international partnerships with like-minded institutions across the globe,” he explained.
"To have a truly diverse, international campus, you need students from a wide range of countries coming. We also need to attract them to the British way of life and provide them with an experience, which means they build a life-long infinity with our culture and social values.”
The key takeaway from Sir Steve’s talk was the issue of student visas. “It's absolutely vital now that our visa and immigration rules are facilitating the system; without this UK he cannot be globally competitive,” he stated.
“Our government sends out very mixed messages on visas and I fear that the UK does not offer a warm welcome. In fact we are putting up barriers to genuine students coming here while other nations are welcoming them.
“But all is not lost,” he continued. “The number of international students starting a course in 2013/14 returned to growth, with an overall 3% increase. We're still in the game, thanks to the globally renowned excellence of our education system and still offer a great return on investment.”
So in the struggle to market brand UK in an increasingly competitive global HE marketplace, there are still a lot of lessons to be learned.