Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, a report issued by a House of Lords Select Committee, stressing how higher education boosts the “soft power” of Britain globally, has stated that UK universities are “centres for shaping the thoughts of the future elite in the world”.

Comparing UK universities to other British institutions, they assess how we can bring in learners and educations from abroad, and how we can export students, teachers and educational institutions overseas to help to build social and cultural links, and strengthen business and research ties - British universities are significant because “they are global institutions rather than British institutions”, so they “contribute to global debates about the construction of rules and norms rather than conveying an insular national message.” Their message advocates three distinct ways of boosting Britain's global soft power: increasing the number of international students and faculty through the change in current visa restrictions; increasing the number of scholarships for international students; increasing the ability for British students to study abroad.

There are approximately half a million foreign students at all levels learning in the UK at present, with 18% of UK higher education students international, as well as over 25% of the faculty from countries outside the EU. However, as Education UK has mentioned, while the UK currently has an enviable reputation for education, the market for international students is intensely competitive, and our reputation will only remain if our leading academic institutions are rigorous in defence of independent thinking and academic standards. According to Universities UK, the UK spends significantly less on tertiary education (including research) as a proportion of GDP than the OECD average and, therefore, there is no room for complacency. In this way, the Committee proposes that there should be reinforced private and public investment and supportive policy-making to protect the UK education sector’s global position.

International students in UK-based institutions “develop an awareness and respect for UK culture, governance, institutions and history” and gain exposure to “UK norms and cultural values”. 95% of UK university international alumni are “positively orientated” towards the UK while 84% retain professional and personal links. In this way, students can return home to be the UK’s “greatest ambassadors”; many go on to hold influential posts in their home countries, including government roles, and this connection puts the UK and its businesses in a position to engage successfully with the leaders of the future.

However, the UK’s overall growth in international student numbers of 4,570 in 2011–12 is tiny compared to recent US figures of a growth of 41,000 students over the same period. The UK is the second most popular destination for Indian nationals looking to study overseas, but since 2011 it has seen a 20% drop in the number of students coming from India and a drop of 0.4% overall. This trend is “significantly below” that required for the 15-20% increase in international student numbers over the next five years that the Government’s industrial strategy for international education considers “realistic”. 

The fall in student numbers were due to recent UK visa policy changes and visa administration - specifically the increased cost of visas and the complexity of getting a visa to study - and it has been noted that the present visa regime cannot be sustained as prospective students will eventually go to their second or third university choices. As well as doing damage to the UK’s trade, tourism, international education industry and cross-border connections, current messages about immigration have undermined the country’s reputation for openness, and thereby injuring an aspect of its soft power. In this way, the British are perceived as being "anti-investment, anti-business, anti-trade" presenting an image "in the overseas press that we are not open for business for students and we are not welcoming to them". 

In this way, the Select Committee, the 6th committee to do so, agree with Universities UK and the International Unit that international students "should not be caught up in efforts to reduce immigration. Visa procedures should be implemented in a way that is consistent with the government’s aim for a 15–20 per cent increase [in international student admissions] over the next five years".

Scholarships are another way of enticing students to study in the UK. The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) describes how a survey of Commonwealth scholarship alumni found that 45% of respondents had influenced government thinking in specific policy areas, and 25% had held public office. A 2012 survey of Marshall scholarship alumni had found that 18% of respondents had held a political or public-related post. Scholarship alumni seem to have a willingness to maintain their connections with the UK, with 45% of Marshall scholarship survey respondents having made a donation to or financial investment in a UK institution. However, scholarship levels need increasing following a recent decline; total Government investment in these scholarships is about £42 million per annum to support around 2,500 individuals - lower than countries such as Australia (AUD 334.2 million in 2012), France (€86 million in 2009), and Germany (with 17,674 individuals supported in 2011). 

Given that the UK cannot compete with countries such as China, which is using vast resources to promote the study of Chinese language and culture (including by currently hosting 12,000 African students), the UK could act more strategically when offering education opportunities to potential future leaders. In 2011, 27 of the serving Heads of State from around the world had studied in the UK. The UK could sustain the important connections formed through education by working with universities and schools to scope out opportunities for the establishment of overseas campuses, and by funding new and targeted scholarships in key growth areas such as Africa. Such an approach would help to “build up trust and influence and secure our market position in the ‘African lion’ economies of the 21st century”. 

At the same time, the report proposes that we address the decline in language learning in schools and universities in the UK to help students study abroad. In 2010, only around 23,000 UK students were studying for a degree abroad. This represents just 0.9% of students, although the figure does not include those studying overseas for periods of less than one academic year, such as the 12,833 UK students who were taking part in study abroad as part of the EU’s Erasmus student exchange scheme, or who were on a work placement.

Studying abroad provides soft power benefits to the UK and, therefore, the Committee urges the Government to make every effort to redress the decline in language learning in UK schools and universities. It is also suggested that the Government could provide increased support for study-abroad programmes, for instance by extending the British Council’s Generation UK programme, which aims to enable 15,000 young people to undertake a fully funded study or work placement in China by 2016. 

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