In an economy that is struggling to shake off the effects of global recession, Britain’s world class education sector and its 7% growth in 2011 represent a shining light for increase productivity. But are the country and its capital truly maximizing its competitive advantages in this sector? And is government policy promoting or stinting further growth?
In 2010, international students contributed some 12.5 billion pounds to the UK economy and that figure has increased annually by 7% according to NUS estimates. With over a quarter of these students based in London, it is not difficult to see their immense contribution to the capital’s economy. In fact, educational services represent London’s fourth biggest economic sector, say the LEDC.
More than just tuition fees
The benefits London enjoys from its sizeable international student population extend far beyond the significant tuition fee revenues.
Consumer spending in the local economy by these students supports retail and other service sectors, from hairdressers and dentists to accommodation and banking. Much of this spending is bringing foreign currency into the UK, and with an economy that has persistently ran a balance of payments (BOP) deficit since the 1980s this is an important source of revenue for the country.
“You have to appreciate the impact across the whole local economy that consumer spending by international students makes,” said George Wilson, an Editor for Cambridge Proofreading which relies heavily on the custom of overseas students.
More than just economic benefits, London’s multicultural community is further benefited by the social and cultural exchanges that occur when international students come to study here.
Ties can be nurtured and developed between international students and their visiting country – ones that will extend long into the future and can only further develop social and economic relations between Britain and the international community.
Government policy sending the wrong message to international students
This summer’s decision by the UK Border Agency to strip London Metropolitan University of its license to recruit international students has implications for “the entire UK education sector”, according to the vice president of Universities UK.
Many in the sector believe this development is sending the wrong message to prospective international students around the world about the UK’s attitude towards its guest students.
“This situation could be interpreted very adversely by international students, their sponsoring organisations and future potential students considering study in the UK”, Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey told the Times Educational Supplement.
Student visas tougher to secure
Unlike many other countries, Britain makes no distinction between temporary and permanent migration. Anyone who stays in the country for more than one year are shown on the long-term migration statistics, regardless of if they leave a few years later. This means that international students that study in the UK for more than one year affect government net migration figures.
With a coalition government that has committed to reducing net migration figures to the UK, this has resulted in a more stringent application process and a squeeze in student visas granted. This does not help British universities, which are competing with the USA, Canada and Australia, to attract international students.
Protecting the London ‘brand’
Protecting and promoting London’s image as a culturally diverse, welcoming city with a strong heritage of education and academia is essential to maintaining and growing the capital’s student economy.
The civil unrest and rioting in 2011 was undoubtedly a low point for London’s global image. Footage of a Malaysian student assaulted and robbed on camera during the riots received wide international coverage – an unwelcoming image for prospective visitors watching.
Fortunately, London is no stranger to international television sets and such negative images are hopefully diluted by more positive happenings, such as the roaring success of the 2012 Olympics.
Opening more doors
Britain needs to further capitalize on the English language’s status as the international lingua franca and the country’s image as one of the major global centres for education, rooted in a historic academic tradition.
Whilst government and media puts significant emphasis on sectors such as manufacturing that continue to face challenges to maintaining competitiveness, education exports continue to grow impressively despite questionable support from both public policy and media coverage.
Perhaps it is time to focus on the country’s economic strengths, not its weaknesses, and to truly acknowledge the reciprocal benefits that overseas students provide the UK and their home countries.
About the author: Emma Wilson is a freelance journalist and editor for Cambridge Proofreading LTD, a company that relies heavily on the custom of the UK’s international student population.