Will the UK meet its education export target by 2030?

18 December 2020

Stephanie Harris

Head of International Engagement (Non-EU)
Universities UK International

This week saw the publication of the UK’s latest data on estimated revenue generated by education related exports and transnational education (TNE) activity in 2018. This data allows us a look at how the UK was doing, pre-pandemic, in relation to the government’s target of increasing education exports to £35 bn by 2030. 

The short answer is, we were doing very well.  

The total estimated revenue in 2018 had increased to £23.3 bn, an annual increase of 9%. This is the biggest annual increase estimated yet (the data goes back until 2010) and is 2% larger than the annual increase of the previous year.  

Revenue generated from higher education exports has always made up the largest share of the UK education export and TNE revenue. These figures predominantly capture the net revenue of all international students studying in the UK on full courses or through Erasmus+. They include the fees paid to universities, and students’ living costs in the UK, minus any government spend on scholarships or tuition fee loan write off from government.  

These latest figures show that in 2018 this totaled £16 bn, an increase of £1.5 bn (11%) from 2017, accounting for 69% of the total estimated value of revenue generated. Of special note, given the uncertainty over the UK’s future association to Erasmus+, is the £440 million of revenue generated through the living cost of incoming Erasmus students in 2018. 

Export revenue generated by other parts of the education sector including further education, independent schools, English language training, and EdTech is captured in this data. All have seen strong growth in the last year though it is notable that the revenue generated by English language training is still 20% lower than that generated in 2010. 

The estimated value of transnational education (TNE) in 2018 tells a slightly less rosy story with a 1% drop in 2018 relative to 2017 to £2.06 bn. However, this is largely due to a decrease in TNE revenue in the school sector with the value of higher education TNE increasing to £650 million.  In total the value of TNE revenue has nearly doubled since 2010. 

Of course, the £35 bn question is - will the UK meet its education export target by 2030?  

Based on this latest data, I would be tempted to say yes, and then some. Based on these figures, the UK would need to achieve on average 3.5% growth over the next 12 years to reach £35 bn by 2030. This is both lower than the 5% average growth in revenue since 2010 and far lower than the 9% growth seen in 2018. An average growth of 5% over the next 12 years would see the total figure reach £40 bn by 2030 whilst consistent growth of 9%, as seen in 2018, would see this figure reach £65 bn over the same time frame.
However, there are three very large buts to all the above and two that strongly suggest that we shouldn’t assume reaching this target is a done deal yet.  

They are of course:

  • The introduction of Graduate route
  • Covid-19
  • Brexit 

With the UK’s Graduate route announced in September 2019, these figures do not reflect the likely positive effect of the introduction of the route for international students. Neither do they reflect the impact of Covid-19 on international education, we’ll need to wait for two years until that is fully realised in these figures, nor Brexit, with its associated change in immigration and fee status for EU from 2020 and 2020/21 respectively.  

Whilst initial indications suggest that the impact of Covid-19 on the UK’s international higher education sector has been minimised, it is still very likely that figures for 2020/21 will see a stagnation or slight decrease in the numbers of international students coming to study in the UK and therefore an associated drop in the value of education exports generated. We also know other parts of the education sector, such as English language training, have been even harder hit.  

It’s hard to know what impact a fee and immigration status change for EU students, who make up one third of all international student in the UK, will ultimately have on numbers choosing to come and studying the UK, but it’s safe to assume that it won’t be positive. Previous work has suggested such a move could decrease EU enrolments by 57%. Not associating to Erasmus+ alone would mean the immediate loss of £440 million as articulated in these figures. So far little action has been taken at the national level to mitigate the impact of this potential damage. 

So, whilst these figures are positive and suggest the UK is well on course to meet the target set out in the International Education Strategy, there is a very long way to go yet.  

If the last few years have taught us anything in UK international higher education, it’s that the difference between success or failure lies in fine policy choices made in response to external events and it is those choices that lie ahead in the next few weeks and months are likely to determine whether the UK government and the sector will be celebrating a job well done come 2030.

Dr Stephanie Harris is Head of International Engagement (non-EU) at Universities UK International 


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