Higher education institutions from across the UK came together in London to discuss opportunities and challenges in the recruitment of international students at a recent conference organised by Cambridge Assessment English and UK NARIC.

Brexit – Leading the way in international admissions and recruitment – Europe: Collaborate or compete? brought together representatives from more than 60 universities, to hear and discuss the latest research, developments and debates within the sector, focusing particularly on Brexit and the growing trend for universities in Europe to deliver courses taught entirely in English.

Hervé Marc, Regional Director for Cambridge Assessment English in Europe and North Africa explained:

“We organised this event to provide a forum for discussion of the issues faced by UK universities in attracting international students. The next few years will present serious challenges to international student mobility, but we are convinced that by maintaining an open, collaborative relationship with colleagues across continental Europe and beyond, UK universities can continue to make a major contribution to international education, as well as delivering outstanding educational and personal experiences for students from continental Europe and throughout the world.”

In his opening address, Hervé Marc welcomed delegates to the event, stating: "The will of students to receive a global education, their eagerness to study abroad has never been so strong."

Keynote speaker, Michelle Stewart, Vice-President of The European Association for International Education (EAIE), addressed the topic of collaboration, commenting:

“For universities, industry and commerce...success will depend on the ability to collaborate as much as possible. Organisations that have the best connections will be more likely to succeed – the key to success is relationships and that will be critical as we move forward.”

Michelle said, across the sector: “The one word we are all using at the moment is 'uncertainty'.

“The main concern, at the moment, is what will happen to the students who have been coming to the UK from Europe. Demand from the EU will be determined by the visa and immigration regime and whether students will be classified as international with the same visa, fees and NHS charges.

“On research, exchange and recruitment of students there is a strong case for collaboration versus competition – attracting the best students and staff is competitive and, in the UK, that will require more collaboration internally – between the higher education sector in the UK and government agencies.”

UUKi update on Brexit

Anne-May Janssen, Head of European Engagement Universities UK International (UUKi), provided the latest update on Brexit from the UUKi. Addressing the topic of compete or collaborate, Anne-May said: “The main message we get from our European partners is that they want to continue to collaborate with us.”

Addressing post-exit settlement, Anne-May noted: “We want an immigration system that allows universities to attract the best and the brightest across the world; we want enhanced support for research collaboration and outward student mobility and we want to maintain the regulatory standards that we have with the EU currently.

“In the short-term our sector needs: a withdrawal agreement as quick as possible so that we have some certainty, [to set] student fees for 2020, informed immigration policy and information and full association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus.”

Repositioning strategic UK university partnerships and alliances post-Brexit - UCL

Ludovic Highman, Senior Research Associate at University College London (UCL), discussed the impact of Brexit on research opportunities and EU student and staff recruitment.

With more than 130,000 EU students in UK universities, EU students represent about 6% of the student population in the UK – and at doctoral level, about 13.3%, Ludovic said:

“China sends the most students to UK universities by far, followed by the US then Germany, France and Cyprus – these are huge ‘sending markets’ that are very important to the fabric and diversity of the student cohorts in the UK.

“The Russell Group universities in London, as well as Scottish universities, educate very significant numbers of EU students. Nearly 20% of Aberdeen University’s student cohort is made up by EU students and [for] Master’s programmes, more than half, sometimes 90%, of the class cohort are from the EU.”

Ludovic pointed to Brexit as a catalyst: "In terms of partnerships, it reminds UK higher education institutions that they need to engage with Europe in the same way they interact with other continents.”

Brexit and its impact on the recruitment and admission of EU HE applicants in the UK - UCAS

Carys Fisher, Senior Policy Executive, at The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), presented recent data from the UCAS application service.

According to Carys, applications from EU students declined by 4.5% in the 2017 admissions cycle, which was the first full application round following the referendum, but that this recovered to a fall of 2% following acceptances.

Carys said: "We must not focus on Brexit in isolation, but in terms of the challenges and opportunities that exist within the sector at the moment.

[When comparing data from 2001 to 2016] the UK has maintained its position in the market but other significant players have really started to come into that space. China and Russia are both evidencing strong growth, and while the UK is maintaining strength, it hasn’t grown in recent years,” she said.

Developments in student interest in the UK and continental Europe – StudyPortals

Carmen Neghina and Rotem Deutsch, from StudyPortals, discussed student perceptions on higher education study destinations of choice as well as an increasing demand for online British degrees.

Carmen highlighted: "The demand for online British degrees is four times higher than existing supplyonly 6% of the current programmes in the UK are online programmes but they generate 26% of page views, which means there’s strong student interest for online British degrees.”

Interest for studying in other English speaking countries, including Canada and Australia, represented the most competition for UK universities – rather than Europe – with student numbers for both of these countries on the rise.

“When we asked students opting to study abroad which countries they were comparing the UK with [when choosing where to study], 50% said the US, 50% said Canada, and almost 40% said Australia. Student interest in the UK is decreasing, while interest in Canada is increasing.”

Carmen also warned, according to student perception: “The UK is seen as less safe, less affordable and with fewer employment opportunities.”

She ended with a call to action: “It’s time for action on the side of UK universities – Brexit is not what we should be focusing on but, rather, we should focus on the UK’s competitive edge in general.”

Introducing the English Medium Instruction (EMI) Quality Mark – identifying quality providers, raising global standards in English Medium Instruction – UK NARIC

Paul Norris, Deputy Managing Director, UK NARIC, provided an overview of the EMI Quality Mark and discussed some of the quality issues that arise with English Medium Instruction provision.

Paul referenced an English medium instruction survey undertaken by Oxford University’s Julie Dearden – in which, out of 55 countries, 83% responded that there were not enough quality EMI teachers in those countries.

“This is really quite important – if the teachers themselves aren’t comfortable teaching in the English language, what kind of output do we get from those programmes? Paul asked delegates.

“If we’re looking at the future trend of EMI, I would suggest that the future lies in higher quality programmes, not necessarily higher quantity – in this context, UK NARIC is working with Oxford EMI to launch a new quality mark which will look at coherent approaches to EMI, quality of teaching and outcomes for students.”

University panel discussion: Collaborate or compete?

In the final session, panellists Frans Snijders, Director of International Office Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam and Rebecca Leech, Senior Admissions Officer, University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), addressed the big question of the day: does Europe want to collaborate or compete?

The panellists discussed their observations on the impact of the Brexit outcome on international students – Rebecca said, initially, the UCLAN recruitment team had expressed concerns: “European students voted with their feet – we saw a decrease in applications... EU students were worried about the fees increasing and visa difficulties but applications are now growing again.

“Students who have historically come to the UK (from countries such as China and India) aren’t seeing Brexit as a barrier, but those in emerging study abroad nations need more reassurance that they will be welcome. At first European students felt they weren’t welcome, and this went hand in hand with changes to visas, fees... the UK probably didn’t present as a very welcoming destination and that’s what we need to work on now. There is a lot of work to do to raise the [UK’s] profile again as a leading nation in education.”

In their closing remarks, the panellists discussed their optimism for higher education in the UK, beyond March 2019.

“[Brexit] is making us sit up and realise students won’t come flooding through our doors every year – we’ve got to learn about best practice and, as a consortium of universities, we need to work much closer with partners in Europe,” Rebecca said.

Following the panel discussion, Chair Chris Lyons (UK NARIC) concluded with: “Uncertainty emerged as a theme today but clearly the need to continue with collaboration and competition, which exists naturally in tandem, is likely to continue to be the case as we look to the future beyond Brexit.”

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