This is not about Brexit

6 February 2020

Seven events from the past year (apart from Brexit) that the UUKi team think will change the way we deliver international higher education and research over the next decade

For almost four years now, Brexit has been one of the greatest unknowns lurking on our horizon. It is not, though, the only significant change which will impact the higher education and research sector over coming years.

That's why, at this year's International Higher Education Forum, we will decidedly not be talking about Brexit (well…not much anyway). Instead we will be focusing on some of the other issues that are going to shape this new decade of international higher education. The niggling issues, the urgent issues and the exciting new opportunities that have been on all our minds, but that maybe we haven't all got together in a room to discuss yet.

With that in mind, here are seven things that happened in the past year that our team think are going to have an impact on the way we work over the coming ten years (that have nothing to do with Brexit). Let us know if you think we missed any.

1.    The general election result

Peter Mason, Policy Manager, Europe (Research and Innovation)

Having a majority government at last will allow the Prime Minister to press forward with his 'Global Britain' vision and ambitions to make the UK a 'science and research superpower'.

There have already been some significant proposals that will support the delivery of these goals: the expansion of the Tier one visa route, the proposed doubling of the research budget to £18bn a year and the expected £800m put aside for the new UK Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – which is expected to become a 'visible symbol for the UK's new scientific regime'. There are opportunities beyond funding for the sector though. There is space for us now to define what concepts such as 'Global Britain' and 'Science and research superpower' mean to us and to influence how those ambitions are achieved. 


2.    The International Education Strategy

Eduardo Ramos, Head of Transnational Education 

Launched in March 2019, the International Education Strategy marked a step-change in the government's approach to international education. In particular, the ambition to grow the number of international students in the UK to 600,000 paved the way for policy change that would be much more favourable to international students. It also demonstrated a real governmental focus on transnational education, the impact of which will become more apparent over coming years. How will government work more closely with the sector to grow our TNE offering, and what challenges and opportunities will this present? We look forward to the upcoming review of the first year of the strategy. 


3.    The climate emergency

Celia Partridge, Assistant Director, Partnerships and Mobility 

In May 2019, the UK government voted to declare a climate emergency. They were beaten to it by a number of universities though, with the first university announcing a climate emergency in April. While climate change has been on the higher education agenda for a long time, in the past year the discussion has stepped up a notch. A number of institutions have declared plans to go net-zero by as early as 2025 and a UK higher education and further education climate commission has been set up. International work will be a core part of these plans. It is now inconceivable that we can continue to deliver international higher education and research in the same way over the coming decade. Sustainability needs to be embedded across everything we do, and the global sector will need to find innovative new ways of collaborating.

4.    The announcement of a new Graduate Visa Route 

Dr. Stephanie Harris, Head of International Engagement 

The announcement of a new two-year graduate work visa was cause for much celebration across the higher education sector. It certainly appears to have had the desired outcome: following the announcement of the new graduate route, there were surges in interest in the UK as a study destination from key markets, demonstrated by course search data from IDP Connect. This increased interest is in top of already growing numbers of international students coming to the UK to study.


The accelerated growth in the number of international students in the UK is a positive thing, but it poses challenges that we will have to respond to quickly. Are we equipped to accommodate and support significantly more international students? How do we maintain public support for international student recruitment? How do we ensure that employers understand the new work visa, and that our international graduates are finding the work they want? These questions will need to be answered to avoid the boom being followed by a bust.


5.    Education Secretary Gavin Williamson's letter to the Office for Students

Annie Bell, Communications Manager

'We have done something for you', said Gavin Williamson to UUK's Annual Members Conference in September, referring to the new Graduate Visa Route, 'now we need you to do something for us'. He went on to talk about the need for universities to ensure that international students feel integrated on campus, are supported in terms of their wellbeing, and are supported to achieve positive employability outcomes. Later in September, he followed this up with a letter to the OfS asking it to 'consider what steps it could take' to ensure this happens. The letter talked about making public data on international graduate outcomes, not just for those who studied in the UK, but who study any UK degree anywhere in the world. The full implications of this are yet to be seen, but the sector is going to have to think hard and fast about the level of support we offer to international students both in the UK and overseas.


6.    Growing concerns over the risks of international engagement in higher education and research

Jamie Arrowsmith, Assistant Director, Policy

Higher education and research are open and collaborative both in nature and by design. However, debates over foreign interference in academia have intensified in recent years, and government are increasingly concerned about, for example, cyber security, the control and misuse use of intellectual property and the questions that international engagement may pose for academic freedom. There are myriad issues coalescing around international higher education (for example, those raised by last year's Foreign Affairs Committee report) and the sector must face up to these challenges – and tread a path that ensures collaboration continues to lie the heart of academia, while assuring government and the wider public that such international engagement is safe and secure.


7.    The Coronavirus outbreak

Andrew Howells, Assistant Director, External Affairs

The Coronavirus outbreak has thrown a number of issues into the spotlight. There are concerns around visa compliance, student mobility, recruitment, travel arrangements and, most importantly, staff and student welfare. At the moment, we are largely focused on addressing short term challenges, but the Coronavirus outbreak could have longer term implications for universities. For example, a number of institutions will reflect on their online learning offer: are we geared up, as a sector, to continue to educate our students even if they are in quarantine on the other side of the world? How can we deliver for our students in a more innovative and agile way to ensure that we are still there for them even in the most unforeseeable of circumstances?


The International Higher Education Forum will address the areas of risk, responsibility and innovation. It will take place in London on the 24-25 March 2020. See the full agenda here.

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