A new Golden Age for Internationalisation. But can we get it right this time?

“The challenges this time round, in a much more competitive environment, are to learn from the mistakes made last time, and build sustainable financial models “

Who could have predicted, even just a year ago, that internationalisation would need to be back at the top of university agendas in the way that it was in many institutions throughout the 2000s? So asks Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Reading. 

Full-degree, on-shore, international students were the growth engine of UK universities in the 2000s.

If HEIs wanted to grow and prosper there were limited opportunities to do so at home: student numbers were highly regulated and growth capped; so by definition university income was also effectively capped. Surpluses were almost non-existent.

By the start of this decade, international was starting to look a little less attractive and its dominant position as our universities’ growth engine was waning.

“But we didn’t  predict the changes: Brexit and the potential losses it could incur; and the burgeoning debate around fees and growth among UK politicians”


This wasn’t just because of increasing pressures of immigration policy impacting the UK’s attractiveness, but the international recruitment market was increasingly turbulent and growth rates were now flat lining.

Fast changing impacts of currency fluctuations on sponsors, the growing power of agents, and above all competition, led to an arms race-like escalation in international student recruitment costs, and in turn, to fast reducing margins on international student recruitment.

But so what? There was now an easier way of achieving the student growth levels needed to support ever more ambitious capital developments. A large part of the UK sector could now rely on:

  • domestic and European student growth following the lifting of number controls
  • the prospect of being able to increase tuition fees for domestic and EU undergraduate students
  • and increasing demand from domestic and European students for postgraduate studies in order to differentiate themselves in a mass university educated employment market place.

The balance had shifted in favour of UK and European students – students easier to recruit and where margins were beginning to narrow.

But we didn’t  predict the changes which are freezing capital developments and putting international back on the top of our agendas.

Brexit and the potential losses it could incur; and the burgeoning debate around fees and growth among UK politicians.

The UK demographic decline is now also starting to have an impact.

But so are are apprenticeships and alternative study options from the private providers. Along with employers starting to recruit post high school, not waiting for the output of our universities, these changes are leading to students and parents questioning the ROI of HE.

Our best-case scenario now is that domestic fees won’t reduce.

This means a growing gap between income and expenditure ambitions, a slashing of surpluses, and a loss of confidence among those providing the loans for our growth plans.

The changing reality for our universities really came home to roost a few days after the June election, when a well-known Russell Group vice-chancellor announced that his president of council had phoned him to demand a freezing of all planned capital developments on campus because of the growing uncertainty about the stability of future income sources.

This new reality now puts international firmly back on the top of university agendas.

The challenges this time round, in a much more competitive environment, are to learn from the mistakes made last time, and build sustainable financial models, while also ensuring that internationalisation is not just a euphemism for international student recruitment at any price.

These are challenges all universities face but in particular those who have packed international students in at almost any cost.

Facing multiple challenges on the home and international fronts, which UK HEIs will have to overcome, or risk falling behind international competitors.

10-point action list for getting things right this time round

1. Focus on curricula relevant to where the students come from as well as where they might aspire to work

2. Ensure international opportunities for domestic students – internationalisation isn’t just about international students

3. Get the student experience right – this is about more than what students do in the classroom, it also includes their wider experiences including mixing with domestic students and the wider community

4. Ensure domestic students enjoy the benefits of the international communities created on our campuses

5. Employability is important to all students irrespective of where they come from. Provide international career support.

6. Remember diversity is important for student experience  – we have been too reliant on China

7. Understand your recruitment costs. Remember that a successful university needs numerous channels to market. And get the power dynamics between you and your agents right.

8. Look after your alumni – they’re your best chance of repeat orders

9. Partnerships are important – not many of us can achieve our ambitions on our own – but remember that in partnerships the benefits need to be clearly articulated to all parties

10. If TNE is part of your strategy then take a long-term view – don’t expect short term returns, especially if you’re investing in bricks and mortar overseas