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Update of UK’s international education strategy

Earlier in February, the UK released a new International Education Strategy (IES). An update of the 2019 strategy was deemed necessary due to changed conditions - mainly COVID-19 and the consequences of the Brexit negotiations, which, on the UK’s insistence, exclude the country’s further participation in the Erasmus+ scheme.  

The UK’s “International Education Champion” Sir Steve Smith, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, is one of the masterminds of the IES. He proposes a priority focus on India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria. Further regions and countries mentioned are Brazil, China (including Hong Kong) and Europe.  

Along mentions of the new Turing Scheme, that is unilateral in flows and strives to fund outgoing credit mobility of some 35 000 UK students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, the main focus of IES is on incoming degree-mobile students paying overseas student fees. The aim is to reach the new target of 600 000 and thus increase education exports to GBP 35 million (up from the GBP 23.3 million earned in 2018). (Higher) education is thus first and foremost regarded as foreign trade.  

Reactions of the higher education sector, particularly to the Turing scheme, were mixed. Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University welcomed Turing on the grounds of its socially disadvantaged target group. So did Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International. She also saw the strategy as a potential instrument to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) although they are not mentioned in the strategy paper at all.  

This is one of the deficits that Neil Kemp, an education consultant and former ‘bigwig’ in the British Council, finds in the strategy. But this is not where his criticism ends. He fears the UK will lose large numbers of students from Europe, many of whom in the past stayed on in the UK as after their studies as postdocs and professors and thus created ‘brain gains’ for UK higher education. He also deplores that the IES lacks the ethos of reciprocity, mutuality and genuine partnerships. For him, IES is mainly about foreign trade, neglecting issues such people-to-people links, quality of education and research, and aspects of culture and society.