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Is the UK still the gold Standard of Education for International students?

Helen Lami, Academic Summer

Helen Lami asks, is the UK still the gold standard for international education? Despite contributions to the economy and academic excellence, challenges like Brexit and new education reforms may jeopardise its status on the world stage.

In 2019, international students contributed £28.8 billion to the UK economy

International students contribute to the UK’s cultural, academic, and economic life and play a significant role in fostering international cooperation and understanding. In 2019, international students contributed £28.8 billion to the UK economy. On average, students made a £40m net economic contribution to the UK economy per parliamentary constituency.  In 2022, international students contributed a net income of £37.4 billion to the UK economy, according to HEPI. Therefore, UK education is a valuable export for the country.

Why do international students choose the UK?

  • The UK is renowned for its high-quality education system, with Universities ranked among the best in the world, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London.  The UK has a long-standing reputation for academic excellence
  • The diverse range of courses and programmes offered across various disciplines and the research opportunities that UK universities offer
  • Cultural diversity enriches the educational experience and develops a global perspective, and there is the bonus of improving English language skills
  • Employment opportunities, though this is getting more difficult; however, a good degree from the UK is also attractive to employers internationally
  • The UK has historical and cultural significance in the world

However, more recently, I don’t believe the UK has helped itself maintain its top position and, in 2019, dropped to the third most popular study destination for international students. Through Brexit, rising tuition fees, more restrictions on dependents, and fewer employment opportunities, we have given the impression that international students are not welcome in the UK.  We have also been through COVID-19, which affected international travel.

We have greater competition as more countries in the EU offer degrees in English and are more affordable, and Canada and Australia have also grown in popularity.

A Levels are attractive to international students

International students often come to the UK for their post-sixteen education, and more and more international schools abroad offer Cambridge International Advanced Levels (A Levels). A Levels is a widely recognised qualification from the UK and is seen as a pathway to top universities both in the UK and internationally.  A Levels are highly specialised, and students can focus on three or four subjects of their choice in depth. Many education systems worldwide require students to study 15+ subjects up to age 18 or 19, so A Levels is attractive as students can focus on the subjects they want to study.

An alternative for students aged 16 to 19 is The International Baccalaureate Diploma, which has existed for over 50 years.  In February 2024, there were 5,700 IB schools in 160 countries, according to the IBO website. In recent years, it has become popular in UK schools as well. The Diploma programme curriculum comprises six subject groups, and students study a subject from each subject area, three at a higher level and three at the standard level. They study Mathematics and languages post-16.  The IB includes theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS) and the extended essay. It, therefore, offers a broader curriculum across the range of subject areas. There is an emphasis on critical thinking, global perspectives and holistic development.  The IB is known for preparing students better for their university studies, and there is research suggesting that IB students achieve higher results in top universities than their A-level peers. IB is also known as the more rigorous choice, which puts some students off!

Does this sound familiar to the way that Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Government is introducing the new Advanced British Standard (ABS) as a replacement for A Levels to shake up post-16 education? Students will study English and Mathematics until age 18, and they have a broader curriculum, studying five subjects either as a major or minor.

Why reinvent the baccalaureate in the UK?

Why does the UK need to reinvent a baccalaureate when there is already one that exists and is very popular both in the UK and internationally? If we talk internationally A Levels and IB Diploma are both well-known and have a good reputation.  ABS is entirely unknown.

Having been part of the first-year group to do GCSEs when they were introduced, I know it isn’t easy. You don’t have the correct textbooks; teachers are not experienced, and, more importantly, employers do not understand the results.

A Levels and IB Diploma suit different students

I have personally been involved in promoting both A Levels and the IB Diploma internationally, and there is undoubtedly a place for both as they suit different students.

The significant advantage of A Levels is that they are ideal for students who know precisely what they want to study at university and for their future careers. They want to focus on these subjects to prepare them. For example, they want to study medicine and choose biology, chemistry, and mathematics. They want to study architecture and choose mathematics, physics, and art. They want the specialist approach and are happy with final examinations as assessments.

The perfect IB student is good at all subjects, has a global perspective, wants to be involved in global issues, and has a more international outlook. They may need to decide what they want to specialise in, and they want to continue exploring and enjoying all the subject areas. They want a more holistic approach, with the assessment of their subject areas, their extended essay, and their participation in CAS.

Some students thrive in the specialised focus of A Levels, while others may prefer the IB’s interdisciplinary approach and global perspective. There is a place for both, and this is the case internationally.

The choice between these systems depends on individual preferences, career aspirations, and educational goals. Ultimately, both pathways equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary for success in higher education and beyond.

Could we end up providing students with less choice, not more?

A Levels offer specialisation and flexibility, and ABS, like the IB, provides a broader and more holistic educational experience. However, why are we replacing A Levels when there is a place for specialisation?

We will lose this by replacing them with ABS, which is very similar to the IB alternative that already exists and is better known worldwide. We risk damaging the quality education system that we are known for internationally and end up providing students with less choice, not more.

Helen Lami, CEO Academic Summer Ltd

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