Universities Without Borders: The Higher Education Commission’s Inquiry into Higher Education Exports

Smita Jamdar is Partner and Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, AHUA's national sponsor. Here, she explains the current inquiry into the UK's higher education exports.

The Higher Education Commission, on which I sit, is an independent body made up of leaders from the education sector, the business community and the three major political parties. The Commission examines higher education policy, holds evidence-based inquiries, and produces written reports with recommendations for policymakers. Previous inquiries have covered areas such as regulation, the digitalisation of learning and big data, and alternative forms of higher education provision.

Our latest inquiry, co-chaired by Professor Simon Marginson, is into “higher education exports”, a phrase intended to encompass the wide range of activities that UK higher education institutions deliver to or with non-UK residents. This includes recruiting international students, transnational education (TNE), branch campuses, online provision, outward mobility and mutual recognition of qualifications.

The aim of the inquiry is to consider what steps and policies are needed to maintain and grow the level of such exports, to improve the sector’s soft power contribution to the UK’s wider global aspirations, and to consider ethical dimensions such as the role the sector plays in foreign aid and development. The three primary objectives of the inquiry are to understand and make recommendations relating to the following questions:

  • What are the obstacles to growing HE exports?
  • What can be done to improve the value of exports post-Brexit?
  • How can the UK advance the other benefits of international education exports?

In terms of the obstacles to growing exports, the Commission is interested in understanding the worldwide market for higher education, where the UK sits within that market and whether it is maintaining, losing or growing its market share. We will look at the extent to which government policy facilitates HE exports. We are also keen to understand the experience of international students, in terms of the interface with immigration regulation, the range of services typically made available to them and whether there are any gaps in the support they require to get the most out of their studies.

In terms of increasing the value of exports post-Brexit, the Commission is looking to identify steps Government might take to ensure the UK is just as attractive a destination as its main competitor countries, particularly but not exclusively in relation to post-study work rights. We will also look at what further skills, support and resources institutions need in to derive most benefit from their off-shore activities.

In terms of the wider benefits of higher education exports, the enquiry aims to look beyond the net economic growth benefits to the impact of on the cities, towns, and regions of the UK. It will examine the benefit of a cosmopolitan classroom for UK students, the degree to which institutions are promoting successful integration on campus, and whether the UK is still benefiting from “soft power”. It will explore the values that underpin the internationalisation of higher education.

The inquiry consists of six evidence sessions, of which three have already taken place. We have heard evidence from a number of institutions, sector bodies such as UUK and the ACU, intermediaries such as iGraduate, the British Council and the Study Group, and from the NUS. A call for evidence has been launched and the Commission would be interested in hearing from institutions about a wide range of matters, including:

  • What needs to be done to protect and enhance the UK reputation and brand internationally, particularly given the potential unintended effects of immigration policies, the TEF and perceived political instability?
  • How do institutions ensure a high-quality international student experience, including integration on campus and in the local community?
  • Where do institutions currently recruit from and are there areas where policy prevents institutions from recruiting despite demand (e.g. India)?
  • How do institutions manage their internationalisation strategies and the opportunities and risks that come their way?
  • What models of online provision and distance learning work most effectively in the international context?

This is a fascinating and important area for the Commission to examine and it would be great to hear from as many institutions as possible to ensure that the report of the inquiry contains the fullest possible analysis. Through this we hope that we will be able to make recommendations that are relevant and effective and influence policymakers to take positive steps to facilitate growth in higher education exports.

Shakespeare Martineau are also sponsoring the upcoming AHUA conference, where they will be delivering a session on managing academic performance.