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Higher education leaders call for overhaul of UK higher education strategy

students sat on wall

The International Higher Education Commission (IHEC) has announced the release of its interim report. The Commission aims to redefine the strategic framework for UK higher education and establish a clear narrative surrounding the substantial benefits of international students. Given the announcement around reforms to international student migration restrictions, the report’s detailed analysis of these statistics is timely.  

The IHEC, an independent and apolitical commission, has garnered cross-party support in Parliament and has secured the commitment of prominent figures and organisations. Guided by its Commissioners and underpinned by research, data and industry insights, the Commission has solicited input from a diverse range of stakeholders, including international students, to outline a new strategy for higher education.   

The interim report, titled UK Higher Education Strategy 2.0: Interim Findings and Recommendations, sheds light on the significant social, cultural and economic contributions made by international students to the UK. It explores how international students influence the learning experiences of domestic students, the role of universities in fostering global connections, and their pivotal role in international research. Significantly, the report also looks at data regarding international students and makes recommendations to build a more resilient sector.  

These recommendations seek to address an overreliance on one-year masters students. HESA figures for the academic year 2021-22 record almost 680,000 international student enrolments in the UK. However, the declining numbers of EU and Chinese students places huge pressure on sustaining some undergraduate programmes. Instead, there is a shift towards short term master’s degrees, which are typically nine months long. In fact,over the past year, the intake of master’s students increased by almost 62,000 students. The Commission argues the Government should take this shift into account.

Covering key overseas market information, the report is the first comprehensive analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data for 2021/22, placing it within the broader framework of higher education policy over the past three decades. It highlights that the current sharp increase in international student growth poses a long-term challenge for adequate provision of services, calling attention to the challenges of sustainability, vulnerability, and shifts in global demand for UK higher education. 

The report also highlights that increased postgraduate recruitment, while driving impressive overall student numbers, poses affordability challenges for accessing UK higher education. This growth, though beneficial in certain areas, drives up the overall costs, particularly in terms of accommodation, impacting all international students. The report further underscores the pressing need for better data and information to effectively shape policy decisions, including timely visa information about dependents and a comprehensive understanding of the diversity within the sector. 

The Commission Chairman Chris Skidmore MP said:

“The government’s announcement is on balance the correct way forward: there has been a rowing back from looking at overall international student numbers and placing a cap on these, which would have been disastrous both for the UK economy and the HE sector, given that international students contribute over £40 billion to our local regions. The two year post-study work visa has also remained in place, which is vital if we are to remain globally competitive, given other countries have more attractive visa offers. It is right that the issue of dependents is looked at, in order to create a more sustainable international higher education system.  

“The International Higher Education Commission which I chair has published its first interim report, which takes a data-led approach to how to ensure sustainable growth in international student numbers. This highlights the importance of ensuring that more international students are placed on full time degrees, rather than one year masters courses, if we are to ensure that international education can provide full value to students in the longer term.” 

The full report can be found here

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