Skip to Content

Politics, Policy, and International Student Recruiting: A UK Perspective

By Bradley Beecher October 2, 2018

Setting the Stage: The Context of Change

Part of higher education is preparing students to succeed in a changing world.

And yet, change can have an unnerving effect on people, especially when change impacts the culture and norms of society. With greater mobility and the easy of moving across the globe, people are relocating from their country of origin for various reasons, some are economic where families are in search of a better life in a new country, or it might be too dangerous to live in their home country. There are a myriad of other factors too. The ease for which we can traverse the globe or do so virtually, is in thanks partly to technologies developed during our current industrial revolution, the fourth industrial revolution.

Higher education recruiting technology and tools

The fourth industrial revolution brings technological, economic, and cultural changes to society at a pace that we have not experienced before. While some in society have embraced these changes, others have felt left behind, which creates societal gaps and animosity focused on these changes. Rob Acker, CEO of, recently discussed some of the underlying causes for the cultural changes occurring because of the fourth industrial revolution and the crisis in trust of our institutions during his keynote address at the Engage for Good Conference in May 2018.

Acker sees us living in a polarizing world where we are experiencing incredible societal, economic, and technological progress, but we are an anxious society due to the factors driving our progress. He goes on to say that this anxiety is caused by three factors: 1) a deluge of information; 2) the weaponization of technology where social media is used for good and bad, which is seeding hatred and intolerance, dividing us, and propelling distrust; 3) and lastly, the fourth industrial revolution is driving so much change so fast that society as become reactive rather than proactively addressing our societal challenges.

    “At, we see nonprofits, education institutions, and companies coming together to connect to a better future every day. The way to overcome anxiety is by participating in activities that build trust, so we can transform the challenges of our world into opportunities.”
    – Rob Acker, CEO,

There is hope to overcoming this societal anxiety, and Acker suggests that trust can be rebuilt and strengthened through some of the same mechanisms that have created the challenges we face today. Acker sees unprecedented rates of social and political engagement by businesses, students, and individuals who have not participated in political or social movements before. Technology that can divide us also has incredible power to bring us together in very positive ways for society. Fourth industrial revolution technology fosters greater global collaboration to connect individuals with common causes instantaneously and provides real-time feedback to institutions to help move society forward.

Social Changes, Evolving Opinions, and Their Impact on Universities

Let’s step back for a moment to revisit an issue that has come to the forefront of political discourse recently and caused a great amount of anxiety that ties to the movement of people, ideas, and technology that all power the fourth industrial revolution: immigration. Globally, immigration has emerged as a focal point and political issue for many Western countries as they are addressing the changes wrought by this current industrial revolution. An outgrowth and response to these changes are the elections of more nationalistic leaders who are focused on slowing or reversing the growth of immigration. For developed countries with slowing or declining birth rates, these immigration policies will impact social safety nets and the growth of their economies longer-term.

On June 23, 2016, British voters went to the polls to vote on the European Union (EU) referendum, commonly known as Brexit, to decide whether or not to stay within the EU. The close results ended with a vote to leave the EU and proceed with negotiations to determine how that would be done. One of the major underlying themes of Brexit is a policy discussion around immigration and the desire for the UK government to control its borders and determine its own immigration policy. The implications for this policy will affect the UK’s world renowned and vibrant higher education sector. How universities proactively respond to this policy, recruit foreign students, and maintain their global reputation for quality will affect not only the higher education sector, but also the broader UK economy.


Economic Impact of Higher Education in the UK

Universities UK’s latest report from 2014 – 2015 found that, “universities across the UK generated £95 billion in gross output for the economy,” £21.5 billion contributed to the GDP, and contributed 940,000 jobs to the economy.

UK universities are globally recognized and the entire sector is known for its quality, which makes it an attractive destination for international students. In a March 2017 report, Universities UK analyzed the economic contribution of international students, from both EU countries and non-EU countries to the UK economy. They report that there are 437,000 international students in the UK, comprising 19% of all students registered at UK universities; 125,000 from EU countries and 312,000 from non-EU countries. Universities UK goes on to state: international students and their visitor generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy, support 206,600 jobs throughout the UK, and generate £1 billion in tax revenues. There is a lot at stake for UK universities and the broader economy.

Looking beyond the economic impact of foreign students for UK universities, there is also a diversifying effect of bring new ideas and cultures into UK universities that help bring variety to the curriculum and student experiences for local students. These intangible influences are beneficial as universities prepare students to work in global economy. Hence, international students help universities accomplish internationalization at home initiatives to expose local students to global experiences.

So What Does Brexit Mean for UK Universities?

Diplomacy and humanitarian goodwill towards other nations helps to build a country’s positive global brand. However, immigration policies or rancorous rhetoric about immigration can create the perception that foreign students are not welcomed. Fortunately, UK universities are currently popular and highly regarded, and universities can do a lot to collaborate internationally and maintain their brand of being welcoming.

UK universities have strong brand recognition for the quality of their research and teaching, and the UK is home to some of the top ranked and most prestigious universities globally. Aline Courtois of the Centre for Global Higher Education, Institute of Education at University College London, summarizes the relationship of UK higher ed with the rest of Europe as:
UK is the 2nd largest recipient of competitive research funding from the EU
6% of students and 17% of staff come from EU countries
Almost half of the academic papers produced by UK academics are in collaboration with international partners.

Courtois goes on to state that the UK has a lot at stake in terms of its global reputation, and other countries will benefit from Brexit including Germany for funding its research activities and Ireland from a student mobility and recruiting perspective. UK universities have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of EU research funding, hence, their relationship with the EU from a research perspective remains a critical to further define.


Greater Global Competition on the Continent

With greater options for student mobility and increased choice within the global higher education sector, UK universities will experience pressure to innovate to recruit students. Simon Marginson, a leading scholar on higher education internationalization, predicts that possibly by 2019, the UK will lose its hold on the #2 position as a destination for international students to Australia. While the UK higher education sector has strongly held its #2 position for many years, since 2012, the growth of its international student population has remained in the low single digits to stagnant, while Australia has experienced rapid growth.

Other EU countries are seeing their public policies payoff in terms of their intentionality for recruiting international students. Germany ranks fifth for total number of international students behind the US, UK, Australia, and France. Germany has achieved its goals for hosting international students with more than 350,000 studying there. The government has been proactively marketing its universities research capabilities and its openness to international students. Germany has become a global destination for students because of the investments it is making in its universities, its high level of academic freedom, the reputations of its research universities, low tuition fees, and 1,500 of its 10,000 masters programs are taught in English.

Ireland is one alternative to the UK for international students who want a curriculum taught in English and who want study in Europe. The Irish government, over the last couple of decades, supported policies to develop Ireland as a destination for international education, however, to realize this vision additional government funding and better coordination with universities is needed to compete globally. Ireland is attractive to students because of its, “location in Europe, cheaper tuition fees and the ease of application through institutional websites.” The Irish HE sector is addressing challenges around global rankings of its higher education institutions and funding for its institutions, which may make recruiting international students more onerous.

What is the Current Policy State in the UK?

Many UK universities operate as global organizations, which makes recruiting students a complex affair. These universities need to recruit domestic students, international students, and for universities with branch campuses or operations abroad such as joint degree programs, they must recruit students for these global programs to remain viable. The UK government reports that some form of British higher education is delivered in all but 5 countries across the globe, hence, recruiting students remains critical for the long-term success of these programs.

There is movement from a policy perspective to explore accomodations for student mobility into the UK to attend their world-class universities. A summer 2018 Brexit White Paper, while still focused on limiting the “free movement” of people into the UK, does provide for further aims to streamline the visa process for student mobility into the UK. In June 2018, the Home Office added 11 countries, including China, to its streamlined student visa process, bringing the total number of countries whose students are eligible for this process to 28; it also removes students from the UK immigration targets. This streamlined process allows students from the 28 countries to provide less documentation to the UK government when applying for their visa. Strikingly, India was not on the list for this streamlined visa process, despite a large population of students who would be academically eligible to UK universities.

Higher ed student

What Can Universities Do to Recruit Students?

While the welcome mat has not been removed, the perception that foreign students are not welcome to study in the UK can become a harsh reality for its universities if universities do not take action and if visas continue to be limited. UK universities have prestigious brands and there is demand for their academic programs.

Traditionally, internationalization has offered three types of mobility: student, program, and institutional. Student mobility is the exchange of students across borders for either short or long-term study. This type of mobility may be more difficult for students, especially students who are not eligible for the streamlined visa process. Restricting student mobility will have economic, cultural, and pedagogical impacts on the UK higher education sector.

Program mobility emcompasses offering online program, joint or dual degree programs, creating partnerships with other universities, or franchising programs. Institutional mobility includes establishing study centers abroad or opening international branch campuses. Program and institutional mobility crosses borders to bring education to students rather than students having to come to a university. While these types of mobilities can be beneficial for students, they are more costly options for universities and senior leaders at universities must determine if the return on investing in these option will be worth the risks they offer.

The Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), hosted at the State University of New York at Albany and Pennsylvania State University keeps detailed records of international branch campuses that have opened and in some cases closed. UK universities have traditionally been leaders in cross-border education and specifically in opening international branch campuses. C-BERT has tracked 38 UK international branch campuses, including campuses that University College London, University of Nottingham, Manchester Business School, University of Kent, London Business School, University of Warwick, and many others have opened.

UK universities and their leaders may choose program and institutional mobility as policy responses to overcome the loss of students due to Brexit. One example is University of Oxford. The French government has said that any UK university opening a campus in France would receive French legal status, which ensure they continued to have access to European funding for research. During 2017, University of Oxford was in discussions about opening a satellite campus and relocating courses and establishing joint degree programs. Additionally, University of Oxford signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a collaboration with four German universities and it plans to establish a research center in Germany; this is part of the University’s desire to stay connected to Europe.

There is still a good deal of uncertainty from a policy perspective within the UK higher education sector. University leaders will need to make sense of and create strategies to address the changing policy environment in the UK. Due to the global nature of higher education and the choices students have to earn a degree, counteracting a perceived environment that is unwelcoming will make recruiting international students all the more difficult. But, university leaders have tools at their disposal to take their programs and institutions into markets rather than being dependent upon student mobility.

What Universities Can Do to Better Recruit International Students

The path to better higher education in the UKHere are some thoughts on what universities can do to be more welcoming to international students and continue to advance their brands:

    1. Offer a dedicated advisor for international students and pair students up with peer mentor.
    2. Give international graduate students access to career services even before they arrive on campus. Georgetown McDonough School of Business does this, for example, and students find it quite helpful.
    3. Provide additional services such as English labs, housing and dining services during holidays.
    4. Provide additional orientation that helps acculturate students to the country, province/state and/or city they will be living in, as well as the university.
    5. Make programs flexible: Create programs online, joint or dual degree programs, creating partnerships with other universities, or franchising programs.
    6. Research whether it makes sense to open an international branch campus.

Higher education technology helps immensely with recruiting and admissions

Higher education technology like Education Cloud can help tailor university communications to prospect and student preferences, share relevant information at scale, and improve student success.

One example of a university that is leading the way is the Oxford Saïd Business School. They recruit using a combination of traditional face-to-face events and digital channels. We heard from Iain Harper, Head of Digital Marketing, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, about their best practices, and here’s what Saïd Business School is up to:

Q: What has been your biggest success lately in recruiting?
A: Our MBA cohort has grown in both size and diversity, which is one of the things our alumni tell us they value the most about their Oxford experience. Around 15% are from Africa and we’re not far off a 50/50 male female split. We have more than 60 nationalities in total. Digital channels, particularly programmatic advertising, enable us to target specific geographies and demographics with highly individualised messaging, so that’s something we’ll be doing more of.

Q: How does Salesforce help Saïd with recruiting?
A: Salesforce sits at the centre of everything we do. The CRM side of things obviously supports our business development teams, but it’s increasingly becoming the “single source of truth” where we amalgamate all the data we have on prospects and leads. Marketing Cloud amplifies our capability by enabling us to build segments based on a range of attributes such as lead score or match to one of our personas. We can then provide a more relevant, personalised and effective outreach.

Q: What strategies/actions have you come up with to address today’s recruiting challenges?
A: We’re looking at making the engagement process easier by enabling live chat and application communities built in Community Cloud.

Q: Can you share your thoughts on the changing political/economic climate and how that impacts recruiting?
A: We’re fortunate to be a young business school that’s recognised for entrepreneurialism and responsible business embedded in the world’s oldest university. The MBA is a significant commitment that isn’t for everybody, so we augment this with shorter courses in areas such as Fintech, Blockchain and algorithmic training that have been immensely popular.

For more information about how universities in Europe are connecting to a better future, please see these selected stories: