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We (and the world) deserve a better international education strategy

We (and the world) deserve a better international education strategy

We have all understood the domestic importance of highlighting the contribution of international student recruitment to the UK’s economic well-being, while recognising the less tangible effects of campus enrichment and long-term soft power. But these outcomes too speak to the UK’s advantage.

This has made the IES uncomfortably readable in the context of discussions with international partners. At times it is hard to avoid the image of the UK as a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking in ever-increasing volumes of students and income from around the world to support the faltering financial sustainability of the HE sector.

This is of course an unfair oversimplification. UK universities that rely on international recruitment for their financial stability (i.e. the vast majority) do place this within wider international strategies that prioritise partnerships, including student mobility, research collaboration and in many cases significant levels of TNE.

It is widely recognised that higher education plays a vital role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And what better message could be at the heart of a new IES than one that the UK is leading the global effort to use higher education and research for societal progress?

Furthermore, this would tie in with the UK’s strategic priority of ‘sustainable development, seeking to re-invigorate progress towards the UN SDGs to alleviate poverty and address some of the root causes of geopolitical instability’.

UK universities have topped the list in the latest Times Higher World Impact Rankings, which look at how universities around the world are making an impact on multiple SDGs. A whopping 11 UK universities feature in the top 50, highlighting how they have contributed to progress in crucial areas such as climate action, gender equality, good health and wellbeing, decent work and economic growth, and sustainable cities and communities.

There is widespread recognition that higher education plays a crucial role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Universities in these rankings each focus on different SDGs, but all must demonstrate impact in SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals. While many UK institutions themselves deliver world-leading research and teaching that supports SDG achievement, it is partnerships that multiply sustainable impact and help to generate equitable outcomes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the growing refugee crisis. More than 100 million people are now displaced by war and repression, and with only 7% of college-age people having access to higher education, there is a huge global effort underway to increase this – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set a target to increase access to 15% by 2030.

The UK plays a key role in addressing this challenge, with multiple programmes offering places at universities across the country as well as long-term projects that help build capacity on the ground.

Elsewhere, it is encouraging to see that the deliberations of the International Higher Education Commission (IHEC) have taken a more rounded view of what is needed in a new iteration of the IES. The report,The role of transnational education partnerships in building sustainable and resilient higher educationnotes that UK TNE makes a significant contribution to local higher education capacity, combats brain drain and in many cases directly contributes to achieving the SDGs.

The University of London, the UK’s largest provider of TNE through distance learning, flexible learning and distributed learning, recently published an account of its historical and current contributions to transforming lives and societies through sustainable global engagement.

Greater use should also be made of the pioneering work of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, headquartered in the United Kingdom. This organisation provides global leadership and unifying power in bringing together international partnerships in higher education across the Commonwealth to address shared global challenges.

I am not suggesting that a new IES should be stripped of any reference to international student recruitment. There is ample evidence of its impact in advancing matters of global concern, not least in the areas of quality education (SDG 4) and decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) – but also in many other sectors. But it must be part of a wider proposition, in which the UK is unequivocally projected as a partner in joint undertakings of mutual and multilateral benefit.

We have recently had a change of government and a promise to “end the war on universities”. The hope is that this will end the fevered environment in which successive media briefings and policy decisions have raised existential questions for universities.

In addition to creating space to look at ways to put the sector on a more sustainable footing in the long term, there is also a great opportunity to recalibrate the IES and develop a new sector-wide narrative that places global collaboration at its core, for the benefit of all.