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Home Publications catalogue Mobility matters 40 years of international students 40 years of UKCISA
Mobility matters 40 years of international students 40 years of UKCISA
Date: Jan 2008

40 years of international students
40 years of UKCISA

2008 was our 40th anniversary year and so that we could look back on some of the lessons learned in terms of the UK’s international student policy, and then forward to some of the big issues for the future, we asked Dr Mary Stiasny of the Institute of Education to help us compile a brief history of the main milestones.

The result, ‘Mobility matters’, which was launched during the British Council ‘Going Global' conference, is being distributed widely to our education sector and government contacts. It is mainly a testament and tribute to all those who have worked with international students over the years as the UK’s success in this area has largely been the result of their dedication, effort, determination and commitment. Individuals in universities and colleges; voluntary bodies, especially in the early years; development organisations, agencies and, at times, ministers and government officials who have argued for more support, more resources, better policies, clearer regulations and latterly, better ‘value’.

But beyond a story of individuals, there are conclusions which can be drawn about how well the UK has done in the past – and what more it might, or even should, do in the future to ensure that the ‘UK welcome’ and the ‘UK experience’ is at the heart of our competitive advantage.

What does this history tell us?

Firstly, as David Lammy says in his introduction, that this 1960s cottage industry has grown into one of the UK’s greatest success stories. Secondly, that this has arguably not been the result of any centrally agreed policy. Indeed a lack of central direction and often conflicting government agendas appears to have plagued growth and development over the years. Thirdly, that visa issues have been the most complex, confused and contentious aspect over the last 40 years with international students caught up, often quite irrelevantly, in wider debates on immigration, asylum, EU expansion, security, illegal working and now, ‘securing our borders’.

Turning to the sector, it also shows that what was at first an informal association of individual advocates and voluntary bodies has developed, over the years, into a highly professional cadre of specialists working with international students. And whether we continue to be a global magnet for international students, in a world of hugely increased choice and competition, must largely be dependent on their efforts and the resources allocated to them.

The current result, happily, is that we now have over 400,000 international students in UK higher and further education and know, from most surveys, that overall satisfaction ratings are typically between 80% and 90%. This is a cause for celebration. But dig deeper and we find some significant areas of the international student experience where the UK’s performance sadly lags behind some of its key competitors.

We also know that the regulatory framework is again becoming more complex and if implementation is not achieved efficiently, we risk losing much of a reputation which has been so carefully nurtured in the past. ATAS (the new open FCO security system), biometrics, Tier 4 of the Points Based System, continuing (and many would argue now unnecessary) Police Registration and finally ID cards. All may be of some value in themselves but as discrete steps in the ‘international student journey’ they are hardly going to make the UK welcome simpler or more attractive.

We are therefore at a crossroads. Credit crunch, a radically re-engineered new visa and immigration system, the final phase of PMI2, research which shows that our performance is good in most aspects but in some, far from world class. At 40 years we look back – but what needs to be done in the future?

On immigration policy, we need to continue to press government to introduce simplified procedures and insist only on what is absolutely essential. We must, in particular, protect and preserve the current and highly valued system of confidential pastoral advice for students, regardless of the new ‘sponsorship’ compliance requirements. We also need to ensure that politicians, the press and the public distinguish between the wider immigration debate and international students coming to the UK, for the vast majority, only for a limited period and for a limited purpose.

On sector policy, we need to invest more in many of those areas which international students value most – helping them to navigate their way through the bureaucracy, pre-arrival information, personal and academic orientation and transition, budgeting and money management, individual guidance and support, physical facilities and perhaps above all, opportunities to really experience the UK, to meet and mix with UK (and other international) students and to understand and feel part of our campuses and communities.

As recent British Council – and I-Graduate – research shows, it is these ‘student experience’ factors rather than just ratings and rankings and traditional reputations which now have most impact on decision-making and will largely determine how successfully we approach the future.

It is also these wider experience factors which have been the focus of UKCISA’s work over 40 years and it is through these experiences and from this understanding, that individual students in the long term will gain most, and why in the end, as we say, ‘Mobility matters’.

Dominic Scott

Chief Executive