Selling humanities

Why the UK’s heritage in the arts will attract a new wave of international learners

By Brendon Kenny, International Marketing Manager, Study Group’s University of Sheffield International College

International students are vital to our universities. They create diverse campuses, fostering international learning experiences. However as traditional recruitment markets mature, and outbound mobility increases, prospective students are beginning to consider a broader range of subjects, from the humanities to creative disciplines such as landscape design and music. If universities want to continue to recruit the best international students, they need to think carefully about course diversity and promotion of existing programmes.

Why the change?

International education markets are developing: existing markets are maturing and new ones are opening up – recent research by Parthenon/EY shows the global HE market has a compound annual growth rate of six percent year-on-year. STEM subjects and business degrees have always been most popular, but HESA data shows that arts pathways and degrees should also now be an area of focus for UK HE institutions. Subjects such as music, history and philosophy have all seen increased growth among international students. For example, at Sheffield, the number of Chinese students applying to study music has increased by 94% since 2010/11.

China is currently the UK HE sector’s biggest market and large numbers of Chinese students come to study engineering or business. However, as studying abroad has become more accessible, a larger pool of Chinese students with wider interests and aspirations are entering the market. There are also increased creative employment opportunities in China – their movie sector is booming – and competition for places at local institutions is tough. The Beijing Film Academy received 25,000 applications for 489 places in 2015, making an international education a more attractive prospect. New markets such as Colombia and Mexico are also opening up – and Latin American students have a long tradition of studying more creative subjects.

Pathways smooth the way

Whilst UK universities definitely have an appetite for recruiting more international students directly on to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, they need to consider their academic readiness. A lot of international students, especially ones from emerging markets, need the support of a pathway programme. Humanities subjects such as English literature can be particularly demanding for students whose first language is not English, and pathway programmes can help smooth the way and equip students with the necessary academic skills for their chosen degree.

For example, pathway programmes at the University of Sheffield International College focus on giving students from other cultures and educational backgrounds a much stronger grasp of critical thinking, within both independent and collaborative study. Critical reading and writing is distinctive to UK higher education, particularly when studying in a research-led university such as those within the Russell Group, so it’s essential to student success.

Educate students on their options

Fostering diversity through course selection is not just a question of offering a broader range of degrees and pathways – students also need to be better educated on the value of different degrees.

International students want internationally recognised qualifications and good career prospects. However, students applying from abroad are often surprisingly lacking in focus. They may have an idea of the kind of career they want, but don’t necessarily select the degree best suited to get them there. As a result, we see students applying, for example, to broad, business-related courses rather than specialising and finding their niche.

Universities need to work with international education agents and pathway providers to encourage students to explore different opportunities. The default, ‘safe’ option of a business management degree might not always be the best choice. Students should look at a wider range of degrees that could make them more employable. For example, it could be very lucrative to study something that is a growth industry in their own country. Dual honours also offer the opportunity to combine complementary subjects that can offer a more distinct, unique profile that will give them an edge in the job market. The challenge is ensuring international students get the information and counselling that they deserve, establishing the benefits of courses that might initially be unfamiliar.

Keep it diverse

Focusing international recruitment on a more diverse selection of subjects also ensures that applications are not dominated by one nationality. Finding the right balance can be difficult, but it’s important for international and domestic students to benefit from a rich mix of nationalities – the ‘brightest and best’ do not travel thousands of miles to immerse themselves in their home cultures, but instead seek international environments which will make them highly employable in future. Plus, domestic students admit that integration with their international peers is essential in order to prepare them for work in a global environment. There are inevitable ebbs and flows – China may be booming, but growth here is starting to slow – so diversity is key to maintaining a balance and ensuring sustainable recruitment to higher education in the UK.

The UK has an advantage when it comes to arts subjects – we have a strong heritage that can help us attract students. Our competitors such as Australia and Canada can’t boast the same rich cultural and historical backgrounds, and these things are very appealing to students when they select a country to study in. A campus with a mixture of cultures and nationalities offers students a unique and enriching experience, with opportunities to develop a network and forge connections with people from all over the world. The UK market is feeling the impact of stricter visa restrictions, but humanities subjects remain an area of relatively untapped potential growth. By offering a broader range of subjects, and educating students on their benefits, British universities will be better equipped to compete on the increasingly crowded global stage.


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