Iram Lone is a seasoned career and university guidance leader with a wealth of experience in providing high-quality guidance and information to secondary education students. With a focus on inspiring and motivating students, she has successfully coordinated Oxbridge and Ivy League applications in international independent schools and has extensive experience in coordinating international university systems, embedding them into strategies, policies, and curriculums. Iram’s in-depth knowledge of the field has been further enhanced by her Higher Education Studies, MA from UCL.
Various factors contribute to students’ decisions to study abroad, including their socioeconomic status, social, cultural, and personal background (Winsome, 2016). The geographical location of international students and government policies addressing student mobility and citizenship can also be influential. Families often play a significant role in the decision-making process, as they have a vested interest in their child’s education. Additionally, current international students and the use of technology, such as social media, can impact future cohorts of students. Professional sources, like study abroad agents, also play a role in enabling students to study abroad.
The UK’s higher education industry is a significant contributor to both national and global economies, with education being the UK’s second-largest export industry (Tannock, 2013). The UK’s popularity as a destination for international students has led to the development of policies that shape international student mobility to UK universities. Geographical and cultural understanding of international students influences decisions to study abroad, with China and India making up 32.4% of all international students in the UK (Universities UK, 2023).
Teichler’s (2007) theory distinguishes between horizontal and vertical mobility, which influences the decision of international students to study abroad. Horizontal mobility involves students choosing a system similar in status to their home country, while vertical mobility involves moving to a higher-status system. For example, American students coming to the UK would be considered horizontal mobility, whereas Chinese students coming to the UK to progress to prestigious institutions would be vertical mobility. Cultural differences also affect the experiences of international students, with American students having more positive experiences due to cultural commonality, while Chinese students face forms of prejudice and discrimination (Tian, 2009). The primary influence for both groups remains the desire for a better education abroad.
The UK’s policy on international student mobility began in response to public expenditure cuts in 1981, and since then, international student mobility has become a crucial alternative source of income (Anderson, 2016). The Prime Minister’s Initiative in 1999-2004 and the rebranded PMI2 in 2006 emphasized the quality of the international student experience and the internationalization of the curriculum (Geddie, 2015). International student mobility is considered a private good available mainly to the elite due to the absence of widening participation access. As a result of the decline in public funding, the UK’s colonial legacy, and global competition, the UK views international students as consumers, and they are valued as a financial income source. The country aims to nearly double the value of education exports to £35 billion and increase the number of international students to 600,000 enrolled in British higher education by 2030 (Department for education, 2019).
Citizenship is a driving factor for some international students, as education abroad can be a first step towards securing citizenship in another country (Ong, 1999). The Chinese government made it easier for citizens to obtain passports and provided funding for students to study abroad. London universities attract a high proportion of international students, but there are concerns about brain drain and the ethics of enrolling students predominantly from countries like China, which are investing heavily in their own higher education system. For example, Tsinghua and Peking University, are two Chinese universities currently ranking in the top twenty by world ranking reputations (Times Higher Education, 2023) However, the movement of internationally educated and skilled workers benefits both sending and hosting countries. Tough immigration laws may impact international students beyond access to universities.
Chinese citizens born under the one-child policy followed the educational attainment characteristics of developed countries like the UK due to parental investment (Fong, 2011). Limited access to prestigious universities led to studying abroad as an option, which suggests historical underpinnings of countries and cultures have a bearing on citizens seeking international higher education. Higher education abroad continues to be the characteristic of middle-class families who possess cultural capital. Parents who have cultural capital perceive studying abroad to be of great value, and sending a child abroad is one way of stepping up their investment. Cultural capital inherited from parents appears to have a significant influence on decisions regarding higher education abroad.
Future cohorts of international students are influenced by the experiences of those who came before them, with positive or negative experiences of friends and acquaintances playing a significant role in their decision-making (Muttarak, 2014: 73). Social media and technology have made it easier for students to connect across continents and share their experiences studying abroad, though this can sometimes lead to idealized portrayals of the experience. Despite negative experiences reported by Chinese students in the UK, the number of students from China studying in the UK continues to rise. Universities also use social networks to promote their institutions to potential international students, since the pandemic we have seen a rise in the number of online events from universities.
International students are often influenced by educational agents who provide guidance and assistance with the university application process, visa requirements, and English language testing (Collins 2012). However, the quality and fees charged by agents can vary, leading to potential abuse and overcharging of students. Agents are limited in their experience of international higher education and may place students at universities that are not the best fit, but instead offer the agent a commission. Universities use agent-led applications as a main recruitment method. The use of agents has become integral in international student recruitment, but it also comes with ethical concerns. Implementing regulations and providing agent training programs can help address these concerns. The British Council has somewhat addressed this by providing an online agent training program (British Council, 2020).
The UK’s higher education sector is facing challenges in attracting international students due to changes in public funding. Universities’ aggressive marketing tactics may have given a misleading impression of studying in the UK, which could affect both prospective and existing international students. The UK needs to focus on widening participation to truly value international education in the global market. The positive international student mobility policies do not seem to alter the demand from international students, but reviewing immigration policies for them is the right way forward. However, regulation is needed to ensure fair agent involvement in the process of international student mobility. Finally, the UK’s ranking as a top destination for international students may change if countries like China develop prestigious universities that rank highly on league tables.