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HEi-think: School leavers see the benefits of studying with overseas students

The Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan have published the results of a survey of school leavers planning to enter higher education on their attitudes to studying alongside international students at university. HEPI Director Nick Hillman outlines what the poll found and the questions it raises.


The last few years have seen a fierce debate about international students. Hard evidence on the economic benefits they bring to the UK has swirled around the corridors of power and elsewhere. Such things have an impact: for example, voters tell the pollsters they have more positive opinions about international students than others who come here. Even UKIP say there should be no limits on the number of international students. Yet the Home Office has proved impervious to pressure. They continue to include international students in their target to reduce net inward migration, while simultaneously denying there is a cap on numbers.

As shown by the depressing headlines in Indian newspapers suggesting the UK is closed for business, this matters. In 2012/13, the number of international students fell for the first time on record. There has been some recovery since, but the British Council says we are still losing out to key competitors: ‘The UK’s recent growth in new international enrolments for higher education courses is overshadowed by a continued decline in [the] UK’s market share of new international students’.

There is a crucial element missing from all the debate: the impact on teaching and learning from having a mixed classroom. Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, recently claimed people know international students ‘create a richer and more interesting classroom for their own kids.’ HEPI and Kaplan set out to test this assertion by polling those on the cusp of higher education.

The main finding is that those on their way to university have a positive but not naïve attitude towards studying alongside people from other countries. Large majorities think it will give them a better world view (87%), offer a good preparation for working in a global environment (85%) and help them develop a global network (76%). Almost one-third (29%) of higher education applicants worry international students could slow down a class and the same proportion think they could need more attention from lecturers, but higher numbers disagree. School leavers really are tomorrow’s global citizens.

The survey is of people on their way to higher education and there is now a need for similar research on those already there. While our results are overwhelmingly positive, there are a range of questions about what happens on campus. They include:

  • Whether the desire to recruit from abroad has gone so far at some courses or some institutions that a distinctively British education is no longer always on offer, and whether this matters
  • Whether groups of international students can act, and be encouraged to act by the circumstances in which they find themselves, in cliques rather than mixing more freely
  • Whether some international students leave the UK without having had sufficient opportunities to engage deeply in British life – perhaps by visiting a British home, travelling around the country or immersing themselves in local culture

These are valid questions of the sort faced by all countries with large numbers of international students. Some people with take issue with them. But remaining a destination of choice for international students calls for us to discuss such issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet. The competition for international students will continue to intensify, so we need to offer them the best possible welcome if we want more of them to come here.

As we consider such points, we should recall the benefits of hosting so many international students are not limited to the financial benefits or the better learning environment. They also include making some courses viable. The reason we have such a rich and broad higher education system, which is truly world-class, is partly down to the number of international students who keep many courses going. They may subsidise other university activity too.

One of the many reasons why this matters is because, when the student number caps for home and EU students are removed this autumn, there will be rich new opportunities to increase student numbers from our European neighbours.

Just don’t tell the Home Office.

Michael Jung 123RF