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The traditional strength of the UK in the field of education which give it a global presence in the hearts and minds of former students who have returned home, are increasingly under threat. Steve Phillips, Chair of English UK and Managing Director Transnational Education at English language school British Study Centres, talks with Hannah Alexander-Wright about soft power, transnational education, drivers of innovation, and the remarkable number of current world leaders who had experienced education in the UK.


In November 2018, a report called “A Sustainable Future for International Students in the UK” was published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Students.  The report gave 12 recommendations to help ensure that the UK remains open and welcoming for international students, as the UK moves into Brexit.  The report highlights the lack of growth of international students in the UK compared with other English-speaking countries, warns against a ‘hostile environment’ created by UK immigration policy and the media, and calls on the government to reinstate post-study work for international students.

The concept of the ‘hostile environment’, the very idea that a government might design a policy to create an unsupportive space for people, is far removed from the world of ‘Cool Britannia’. Even those who would scoff at this slice of buzzy 1990s branding would recognise that it had some cultural resonance, beyond the influential Britain™ document from think tank Demos. This proposed that there was a perception gap between their belief that Britain was “an innovator, a producer, a seller of services, a tolerant and creative society” and how the rest of the world saw it. In truth, educational organisations such as the British Council have been quietly fostering some of these values abroad since it was set up in the 1930s. Founded by the UK Government in 1934 (originally named the ‘British Committee for Relations with Other Countries’) at a time of emerging political extremes across Europe, the British Council published a report from the Institute for International Cultural Relations School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh called Soft Power Today, Measuring the Influences and Effects (2017). The meaning of soft power is contested but the report takes its starting point from political scientist Joseph Nye’s 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics where he defines it as, “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political, ideals, and policies.” Nye outlined this earlier at the end of the Cold War in Foreign Policy journal in 1990, when walls and political borders were being broken-up, but our world of multi-polar powers had yet to fully emerge. The British Council report highlights the cultural dimension of soft power (which it has been astonishingly good at) and its complexity in a world where digital media has challenged long-held assumptions around notions of community, networks and trust. Education and cultural engagement is still a remarkably powerful instrument for generating influence, to make a country seem inherently attractive to those who come and study, returning home with a suitcase full of life-changing experiences. When it comes to diplomacy, soft power is about acknowledging borders and differences, but then giving people the tools to create their own ways of crossing and redesigning them. When soft power is effective it’s not about top-down, heavily managed big events such as Olympic Games or the Millennium Dome of the 1990s, but the deep emotional connection that comes with the interactions of everyday life:the feeling of belonging to a strange city, or the welcome of a host family into their home. Quality education helps students create their own rules of attraction for their host country.  And if proof is needed as to the rewards of education creating a soft power, it’s useful to reflect that 57 current world leaders have been educated in the UK. As our politicians fall out with our European neighbours, we may rely more on our educational institutions to find and make influential friends around the world, for the benefit of future diplomacy.

Recruiting International students is not as straightforward as it once was, however. To become an international student, borders need to be crossed.  Some countries make this easy for potential students, and some do not. Increasingly the UK does not. According to researchers at The Guardian, there have been 5,700 changes made to UK immigration policy since 2010, and in a recent article, The PIE News reported that since changes to the post-study visa rules in 2012, the numbers applying for a visa extension for work have dropped from over 45,000 to around 6,000.

How has this affected the international education sector? Have these borders inadvertently managed innovation by forcing institutions to circumnavigate rules and policies in order to survive? What does the future of international education look like? Friend of 10 years, Steve Philips, Chair of English UK and Managing Director Transnational Education at English language school British Study Centres, recently spoke on the panel of an All Party Parliamentary Group about this topic and was happy to tell me more.


Interview with Steve Phillips, Managing Director Transnational Education at British Study Centres


Hannah: Hello Steve, thanks for agreeing to talk to me today. Could I start off by asking you to tell me a little bit about this All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report?

Steve: Yes! So, this is the All-Party Parliamentary Group for international students that was put together a couple of years ago. And they’ve just brought out this report about recruiting International students into the UK. Everyone knows that there’s a major issue with the numbers of international students coming into the UK. And even though politicians very often don’t see that because they think that there is growth, and growth is always a good thing.

But over the last few years the growth of international students coming into the UK has been about 0.5%, whereas in other countries like the US, Canada, Australia it is 20%, 25%, 18%.  So, there is a major issue that the UK has at the moment, which is that it’s losing market share. There is still growth globally, but the UK is just not getting it, so this report was designed to highlight that.


Hannah: What did the report recommend?

It has brought out 12 recommendations. Some of them pretty big like bring back post-study work, which was abolished in April 2012, which a lot of people put as the main problem for this downfall because it’s the whole message of “the UK is not welcoming and doesn’t value International students”.

But as well as that there are 11 other recommendations. A lot of it is around the message that should be a positive message and not a negative message. Using words like “growth” and “ambitious targets” rather than “limit” and “restriction” and yes, some of them are quite practical recommendations talking about the visa journey for overseas students and what we can do to make that better, and then some of them are more, you know, big picture like who’s going to lead on this.


Hannah: Did the report miss anything out, in your opinion?

Steve: The only question marks over the report that came up during the panel during the Q&A was the lack of transnational education in the report. The report was all about bringing students into the UK and a question was asked about the value of transnational education because too often people see it as delivering courses overseas, UK qualifications overseas, but actually it’s not just that at all. It is also a channel for students to learn about the UK, take a UK course of study and more often than not come to the UK during those studies, or after those studies to do a postgraduate course. So transnational education should be seen, and I agree completely with this point, as an additional recruitment channel into the UK institutions.


Hannah: Apart from the annual £20bn contribution to the UK economy, what other benefits to international students bring?

Steve: Well, I think if we had no international students, for universities in particular it would be a very sad state of affairs because international students bring with them so many different cultural ideas and ways of doing business and open the eyes of the British, of the home students as they’re called very often, and I think there are so many similarities within the EU about how we study and about how we see things, what our mindset is, but when you throw into the mix Asian culture, Far East, Latin America, the Gulf, southern Asia, Australasia, I mean the different cultural approaches to every subject. I’m not just talking business which is the most popular subject for international students to do, you know, but even really specific subjects like medicine are dealt with and studied and approached in a very different way overseas, and I think we have so much to learn from other countries.

English language is obviously very different because we are purely an international community, so that is we couldn’t exist without international students. The best universities in the UK have a really good percentage of international students. And if you asked any vice-chancellor, they would not change that for the world.


Hannah: Right. And is anything that you can add in regard to the soft power that international education offers the UK?  For example, the number of world leaders who have studied in the UK.

Steve: Yeah, its massive, isn’t it? I mean if you think about the world leaders, the ones that are educated in the UK, it’s huge. It’s also unfortunate, but it is going down slightly now in fact last year for the first time the US overtook the UK in terms of current world leaders educated in the country. It used to be about 59 of current world leaders to 56 or 57 in the US and now it’s turned around. But even that, you know, we’ve got currently one quarter out of all the world leaders active, that’s 200 – to have over a quarter of them studied at some point in the UK. And that’s great! I mean that’s, you know, that’s not only the quality of UK Education, that is extreme soft power where they know the UK, they can talk about it with confidence. You can’t really place any value on that. It’s just – it is an incredible thing. I think that the UK has to offer.


Hannah: Okay, and so what are the difficulties International Education faces in terms of changing immigration policy?

Steve: Well. I think the most significant issue is that word “change”. There have been so many changes to the immigration policy, it is just impossible to keep up with and I can’t remember where I read it but I think it was in the international student report that we mentioned before, but there’s been over 35 changes in the last few years to the immigration policy and that’s just so confusing for everyone concerned; not only the universities, but also the entry clearance offices overseas because they’re you know, they are the initial point of the student body when they are meeting the students in the visa departments overseas, and then the students themselves and the overseas agents or partners who are selling the courses.  There is no consistency or stability in the immigration policy. And there’s a lot of the implementation that is very subjective. That doesn’t help with what we’re trying to do which is effectively recruit more international students into the UK.  If we had just one policy even if we didn’t agree but we knew that it was black and white and it wasn’t going to things then I think that we could work with it. But the fact that it is this constantly changing beast, and I think I used the word beast quite appropriately, its just impossible to deal with so that’s the challenge, really, that no one really knows when a student applies for their visa if they’re going to get it or not, and that’s just ridiculous. 


Hannah: And so how have these policies changed the climate of International Education?

Steve: Well in terms of student mobility globally that is increasing and getting easier, but they’re just not coming to the UK. So that’s the change. We know for a fact that there are more international students now going to a lot of English speaking countries overseas such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, Ireland, America even with their strict or stricter policies that are happening in the current regime over there and they’re still seeing growth and that’s the change really that we are seeing fewer students now then we saw pre 2012.


Hannah: Is there an argument that these borders have helped stimulate innovation in international student recruitment? Forcing institutions to circumnavigate these borders with new and inventive ideas, have you seen any examples of this? 

Steve: Yes, in transnational education. So nearly all universities in the UK are now doing some kind of transnational offer overseas. I think it’s about 90% of universities are doing this and it doesn’t have to be the big approach of opening a campus overseas. Some universities have done that. Some have taken their campus and replicated it in Thailand or in China, Kuala Lumpur, but most universities are just providing courses with partners overseas that are delivered through a local partner. English language schools as well are working more with overseas partners, you know? At British Study Centres we franchise overseas. We’ve opened three schools in the last 18 months.  And that this is really in response to fewer students coming to the UK. If the stream of students coming to the UK was growing as it was six or seven years ago, I don’t think British Study Centres would have gone down the transnational route.  But you know we’ve seen a problem and we’re trying to come up with a solution for that. It’s not only taking our English language programs overseas and delivering them to a high quality, it’s also, as I said before, it’s a recruitment channel coming into our UK schools. We are seeing more students coming to our UK and Ireland schools from Algeria, Ukraine, Kirgizstan than we did before and that’s because we have a presence there.


Hannah: So transnational education gets rid of the border completely?

Steve: Exactly.


Hannah: I think you kind of answered this, but do you think these innovations would have happened if the borders of immigration policy hadn’t been put in place? Is there something else you want to say on that?

Steve: Only that I think it’s a good thing we’re innovating and that we’re taking our products overseas. In some ways, you know, we may have been forced to do that, but I think it’s a good thing to get out of your comfort zone and to do something new. Universities have been doing it for a long time – transnational education is not a new thing. There’s been more than 10 years of growth for transnational offers from UK universities. Some universities have been doing it a long time and are very successful overseas. And I think for most English language providers it’s quite new to do what we’re doing – with some exceptions, EF for example who, you know, who have been doing it for more than 50 years really – but for most people it’s something quite new and yes, it’s really in response to a problem.


Hannah: Thinking about businesses that didn’t adapt so well, are we seeing closures in the industry because of these issues?

Steve: Yeah, absolutely. There’s been more than I don’t know the exact number but it’s definitely over 40 closures in the last 24 months and that is either like a proper closure due to fewer student numbers, or cash flow concerns or mergers. Or maybe a school didn’t want to close down so they just merged with a larger operator. You know for that larger operator it makes perfect sense because of efficiencies and taking a new database of clients and adding it to their own database. So, if you look at 40 or so providers that have closed down, I think the majority will be the smaller single-centre operators that did not adapt, not because they didn’t have the knowledge to adapt but because they didn’t have the extensive resources, you know, it’s not a cheap and easy thing to export a product overseas. There’s a lot of work, research, if you’re choosing your local partner, there’s a lot of due diligence that you have to do and then there’s the actual going out there and setting it up, you know, all of this costs money, time and resources that smaller operators just wouldn’t have the resource to do that. 


Hannah: Okay.  Obviously, the message that the UK is open is an important one and highlighted in the report.  How do you think the message can change from “hostile” to “welcoming”?

Steve: Well, it has to be a top-down approach. I mean, everyone’s involved in it. At every level we have to push this to happen, but it has to start with the government. Many of these positive messages have to start with the politicians. You know, proactive friendly statements from people at the top, as they’re doing in in Ireland, Australia and Canada. The Prime Ministers or equivalents talking about the value of international students and how they’ve got these ambitious growth targets. And how students are welcome and they start their journey (with education) and then they can go through and then work after graduation. We don’t have any of that. We have the sceptical and suspicion approach – people who look at international students and think they’re coming to the UK in order to settle. Well in fact we know that less than 1% remain in the UK without working or studying whilst their visa allows them to, so it’s all about positive messaging. It’s all about starting at the top and that’s what we need. We need that top-level support in order to facilitate that.


Hannah: Now, if the UK immigration policies represent the border between a UK education and not, I guess we should talk about Brexit, and the hard borders it may bring. I know it’s a horrible question, but how do you think Brexit will impact on international education?

Steve: Well, I don’t think it’s a horrible question at all. I think it’s a very good and necessary question because it will push the UK to have better relationships with non-EU countries. Already we’re seeing more high-level trips over to countries like China and India, some of the Gulf States, there was one recently in Vietnam. The Prime Minister has enhanced the roles of trade advisors, they’re called the Prime Minister’s Trade Advisors. MPs and Lords are given a country or region and it is their responsibility to increase the trade. I went to an event in Algeria with Lord Risby who is the Trade Advisor, the prime minister’s trade advisor, and it’s great, it just opens doors, and I think these initiatives have happened more post Brexit. So, in the last couple of years, they’ve really started to think more about that. So, of course Brexit is a bad thing – 80% of the industry thinks that, more than 80% probably, but there is some good coming out of the relationships with the non-EU countries.


Hannah: And for schools and universities, how can they use Brexit as an innovation opportunity?

Steve: Well, I think doing exactly that so looking at which countries they’re going to target out of the EU and working out a way to either increase the students coming from those countries or increase the number and the type of partnerships that they have in those countries. This might be transnational education, might be curriculum sharing or some kind of Flying Faculty approach where they deliver a part of a program overseas in these countries. They just need to raise their profile in target countries and choose a very good local partner that they can work with and I think that universities and schools will be forced to do more and more of that over the next couple of years.


Hannah: Do you feel optimistic about the future? You always feel optimistic about the future Steve!

Steve: I’m always optimistic about everything and the future is good. It’s changing. It’s not going to be the same as it was, you know, when I first started in the industry, which is a long time ago. I mean you could just set up a school and it would succeed within two years, you know because the number of students coming in and it was very straightforward. It’s not like that at all now. So, I mean you have to think fast, adapt and be flexible, and be quite strategic about what you’re doing and yeah, of course be positive, very positive!

Hannah: Thank you Steve.



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