A report by the British Council has highlighted the UK’s declining competitiveness as a study destination for international students. Of the four major host destination countries, the UK’s market share has fallen every year since 2010/11 and the trend shows no sign of being bucked; according to the Home Office, the latest UK study visa data indicates it will decline further in the future.

In 2012/13, international enrolment in British higher education fell for the first time in almost 30 years and, although the following year saw an increase, it was proportionately lower than its main competitors. The British Council’s Jo Beall recently told the International Higher Education Forum that “We are losing our global market share,” and went on to state that although the numbers grew in the UK by about 3%, both the US and Australia had grown by 8%, with Canada growing by 11%.

New international HE enrolments and UK market share. Source: British Council

That 2015 is an election year in the UK suggests that the problem might not be rectified as soon as many would hope; immigration remains one of the most divisive political questions in the UK, with recent polls suggesting that the majority are in favour of tighter immigration controls. It is perhaps for this reason that neither the Labour nor Conservative parties seem prepared to offer their opinions on introducing new directions for immigration policies, ones which would increase the UK’s market share as an international study destination.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK government committed itself to increasing international enrolment growth by 20% by 2018 but have since become eerily reticent; an indication of just how hot a topic immigration is in the UK at the moment. The recently published figures have led to calls from two peak international education bodies for a marked improvement in the UK’s competitiveness as a global study destination and a recommitment to increasing international enrolment.

The first comes from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) with their A Manifesto for International Students. The manifesto gives ten recommendations to improve the UK’s share of the international student market which would boost the country’s reputation and influence in the world. UKCISA’s Chief Executive Dominic Scott believes that by publishing and promoting the manifesto to international students it will “demonstrate to them that there is a community within the UK which is on their side and willing to speak up for their interests.” According to the UKCISA’s website, the ten recommendations would:

– make the UK a far more attractive and welcoming destination for well qualified international students
– help to re-establish trust in the UK and our position and reputation worldwide
– increase very significantly student numbers and income contributing to economic growth and prosperity for our institutions and local communities and
– advance the UK’s standing and influence in the world.

The second call for policy changes comes from Study UK, the leading association for independent higher education institutions in the UK. The association’s Chief Executive, Alexander Proudfoot, called for a “new legislative framework to be established, with fairness, access and equitable treatment at its core.”

The manifesto contains specific proposals to make the UK a more welcoming destination for international students including:

– Foreign students being allowed to work part-time throughout the course of their studies
– Postgraduate students having the option to bring their families to the UK
– After graduating, all students should be allowed an unrestricted six-month work period followed by two years of work experience with a study-related field.

With the vote scheduled for May 7th, nobody’s any clearer on who will win the election or even whether there will be an outright winner or a hung parliament. Irrespective of the outcome one thing is certain: both Study UK and UKCISA will continue to put pressure on the UK government to make the UK a more welcoming destination for international study and boost its market share sooner rather than later.