UK needs ‘regional’ international education strategies, says Skidmore

The former universities minister suggested that the universities of London were best-placed to pioneer a devolved approach to international student recruitment

A former minister has suggested universities develop regional international educational strategies to spearhead targets for their diverse contexts.

Chris Skidmore – twice universities minister between 2018 and 2020 – suggested that the 34 higher education providers headquartered in London pioneer the approach.

Mr Skidmore spoke to delegates from universities in the capital at a roundtable event hosted by London Higher, a mission group for HE providers in Greater London.

Recruitment figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) suggest UK higher education will this year meet the goal of recruiting 600,000 overseas students, eight years ahead of the target. Skidmore told delegates this achievement necessitated a fresh approach that is devolved and locally nuanced.

Although the Departments for International Trade and Education reaffirmed these three-year-old targets in a report as recently as last year, Skidmore said the approach “lacked any new ambitions or policy innovations”. The former minister called for the creation of devolved international education strategies led by “regional champions” under the umbrella of an updated national plan, currently spearheaded by Sir Steve Smith, UK government international education champion.

London universities had “shared priorities and challenges” when it came to international student recruitment, observed Skidmore: notably, a sustained loss of market share to institutions in the rest of the UK and better-than-UK recruitment figures for EU students. “There is,” said Skidmore, “both an opportunity for London to spearhead re-engagement with Europe through coordinated action amongst London institutions and a challenge in terms of addressing [the] declining share of overseas enrolments.”

As Chinese universities group their global profile and retain more of their domestic student population, “London is the only UK city that can match the scale of the tier 1 cities in China that host leading Chinese universities,” he said. Asked Skidmore: “Is there not then an opportunity for partnership across the London HE ecosystem with Shanghai or the greater bay area or other major urban centres around the world?”

From highlighting opportunities to addressing myths and challenges, our plans for a London strategy will boost diplomatic efforts to increase international student numbers and, ultimately, help the nation capitalise on its capital
– Diana Beech, London Higher

He predicted that regional policies would encourage universities to work with local authorities and student pathway providers to achieve better results for local communities.

By working in consultation with local bodies – like combined authorities, Local Skills Improvement Plans, and others – universities could seek to grow the local economic impact of overseas students, perhaps by attracting and retaining graduates with locally-required skills.

Universities should also plan “how to provide the best welfare and services for international students, from housing to even giving full consideration to wider cultural and religious needs”, Skidmore continued.

Oxford International Group supported the London Higher roundtable. The discussion marked “the first formal step” in the mission group’s creation of a London-specific international education strategy.

Diana Beech is the chief executive officer at London Higher. “As the UK’s global city, it is clear that London must drive the government’s international education ambitions,” she told University Business. “With the largest concentration of higher education institutions of any UK city, London is well-placed to attract global talent and act as a gateway to further study and work opportunities across the regions.

“Having met the national target for educational exports eight years early, now is the time to let London lead and use the capital’s immense pulling power to increase our ambition across existing and emerging markets

“From highlighting opportunities to addressing myths and challenges, our plans for a London strategy will boost diplomatic efforts to increase international student numbers and, ultimately, help the nation capitalise on its capital.”

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