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Higher Education: The UK’s Forgotten Export?

This article was produced in association with Association of Chartered Certified Accountants

In 2015 the Government announced plans (International Education: Global Growth and Prosperity) to expand revenue from international Higher Education (HE) in the UK and abroad to £30 billion by 2020. The Higher Education Commission (HEC), supported by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, JISC, Universities Partnership Programme and Pearson, set up an inquiry seeking to support the Government’s ambition by identifying how HE could be grown to deliver the 2020 target. The inquiry also looked at the soft power benefits from higher education, such as the role the sector plays in foreign policy, aid and development.

The HEC’s report was published on 13 September. The inquiry, like the Government’s target, covered two aspects of international HE. The first aspect was the value of higher education in the UK from overseas students coming here, paying tuition fees and making a wider contribution to the economy from their stay in the country. The second aspect looks at how UK based Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) establishing services outside the UK.

The inquiry found that HE is second only to financial services in contribution to UK GDP at £20bn a year. The UK was the second largest beneficiary of international students, but has now been overtaken by Australia. Through a variety of supply and demand factors the recruitment of students onshore has been held at more or less exactly the same level since 2012. Those factors include the policy environment and immigration regulation, where recent policy changes, Brexit and perceived government attitudes make the UK a less attractive destination for international students. A hostile environment for international students goes against the national interest, because it diminishes the soft power benefits of engaged and enthusiastic international alumni.

The Commission found that visa and regulatory policy has reversed the growth in students coming to the UK for their education, putting UK universities at a disadvantage to their competitors in other nations. The inquiry heard that at worst, government policy has sent a message globally that UK PLC is closed for business. The Government inertia around the implications of Brexit and funding policy on EU students is also an area of concern.

The report makes several recommendations, including: Intensifying the ‘Education is great’ campaign to repair the damage done to the UK’s reputation as an HE destination; and establishing a cross-government programme board to oversee the development and implementation of a cross-departmental strategy on HE exports.

The report concludes that building a sustainable pipeline of student recruitment into the UK is an important aspect of boosting the value of UK exports. That will be enabled if the sector is encouraged and supported with a coordinated national approach. This approach needs to be cross-party and it must seek to eliminate conflicting policies. The UK cannot afford to close the doors on its second largest sector in terms of GDP contribution.

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With the support of the ACCA, Prospect will be hosting two panel discussions at the 2018 Conservative party conference and the 2018 Labour party conferences. Speakers will include: Paul Blomfield MP, Shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union; Helen Brand, CEO, ACCA; Claire Bennison, Head of UK, ACCA; Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor, University of Sussex; Tom McEwan, Higher Education Commission, Policy Connect; Shakira Martin, President, NUS; Dominic Trendall, Policy Manager, Policy Connect

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