Proving the value of international students to the UK economy

by Joe Avison, Managing Director, Global Relations at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Following what can safely be described as a tumultuous 12 months in the world of politics and international relations – both at home and in the US – the future of international students in UK universities has been called into question. Joe Avison, Managing Director, Global Relations at The Chronicle of Higher Education, looks across the Atlantic at how the sector can better demonstrate the importance of an international student body.

As Alastair Jarvis writes in his excellent look at Theresa May’s first 100 days in office “we must explain why the success of universities is vital to the success of the British economy, society and individuals.” Accurate, deep dive international student data is just one important aspect in that crucial and prescient narrative.

The Institute of International Education in the USA, a non-profit that is involved in several aspects of internationalisation, recently published their annual Open Doors report. Each year, with the support of the US Department of Education, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and other organisations, IIE takes a census of over 3,000 institutions of higher learning. It finds out how many international students are at each university, where they come from and what they are studying. Although this sounds a bit like things we already have, think again.

NAFSA works alongside IIE to demonstrate the economic value of each student to the economy in each state, city and university. For instance, in Illinois 50,000+ international students are worth over $1.5 billion to the economy. I can tell you which universities they attend, the nations they come from, the level and fields of study and I can even look back over the last sixteen years to tell you which years the market in that state rose and fell. This level of detail takes time to put together, and it takes a level of collaboration that many universities might find uncomfortable. But the benefits are there for all to see. Hawaii, a state in which I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I had studied in, benefits to the tune of over $108 million, from just 4,295 international students. The benefit to the economy from international students is significant, but the benefits to our universities are even greater.

International students bring a great deal more than money. They broaden the horizons of our students, bring with new viewpoints and experiences and often they work hard and help keep pass rates up. And let’s not even mention the other elephant in the room, the fact that many subjects are propped up because of international students. There are subjects which are still economically crucial but which British students no longer find sexy.

In my work, I’ve meet with a wide variety of people with opinions on this issue, from ministers and vice chancellors to professors, directors and even students, I have yet to meet anyone who can give me a compelling argument as to why international students are not separate from net migration figures. Yet, despite this consensus it looks like restrictions will get more stringent. The sector must come together to produce the evidence and to prove the point.

There would be other benefits too. In an analysis of the Open Doors report, my colleague Karin Fischer points out a worrying trend towards the elite: over 70% of international students in the US attend only 10% of institutions. The data points to trends that, if addressed early, could be corrected. We could also predict downturns, compensate for over reliance on certain counties or regions, and generally make more informed decisions.

A UK Open Doors would be a powerful tool to help this argument. It’s certainly not the only solution, but providing this level of statistical and fiscal analysis but it would help create a compelling case for removing international students from net migration figures.

This article was originally published on WonkHE