If you help international sixth formers with their UCAS applications, the PM’s recent allegation that the UK’s HE sector is using international student numbers to prop up “low quality” degrees with poor outcomes was undoubtedly troubling.
The language our politicians use when discussing this matters to independent schools, not least because the majority of international students join us at sixth form specifically with the ambition to progress to “a top university”.
But, whilst these international students’ first choice might previously have been a famous British institution, recent survey data shows that studying in a particular country and university rankings have become far less important than actually achieving career aspirations.
“The language our politicians use when discussing international students matters to independent schools.”
Independent school and university interests should be very closely aligned when we look at the concept of the “whole student journey”. Indeed, this was the reason my colleagues and I at Password Language Testing, where we work across both sectors, invited Caroline Nixon to give the keynote speech at our 15th anniversary event in early November.
Speaking in her capacity as international director of the BSA and director of BAISIS, Nixon highlighted the potential value of collaboration on student recruitment and long-term retention, using changing trends already visible in the ISC Census data.
“Universities”, she argued, “could capitalise on these new and emerging market insights by building relationships with schools and engaging international students much earlier in their UK education journey”.
Nixon believes this would be mutually beneficial, since greater direct engagement with universities would fill a perceived need among school advisors, international students and their parents for better support with the transition from school to university.
“Talks develop schools’ understanding of the key issues facing international learners once they begin their degree.”
A growing number of universities are responding to this, for example by participating in the BSA/BAISIS International Student University Day, which takes place annually in September. Universities tailor their talks specifically to international student needs and all sessions are free for school HE, progression and careers advisors to attend. This develops schools’ understanding of the key issues facing international students once they begin their degree.
Demonstrating the potential interest of the UK market is not always obvious, however, says Nicholas Cuthbert, director of insight at The PIE website.
“Universities under-resource the UK market and overestimate the impact of their work overseas.”
International sixth formers in ISC schools are hard for university admissions teams to identify in the UCAS platform without drilling down to “previous institution” and “qualifications” fields. Only these additional steps will reveal the student is at a British school in the UK, but staff tend to use “home address”, generally in the applicant’s country of origin, as indicator.
As a consequence, universities “under-resource the UK market and overestimate the impact of their work overseas”, says Cuthbert. Citing his experience when international recruitment manager at Nottingham Trent University, he recalls a rise in applications from Vietnam – apparently a pleasing return on investment in marketing activities there. In reality, the students were applying from Brooke House College in Market Harborough. Addressing this lack of transparency in the data will be challenging.
Thinking creatively is key, argues Betty Dagistan, director of global engagement at international boarding schools group Inspiring Futures Education (IFE). She says: “At Bishopstrow we have aspirational parents engaging in conversations, about the prestigious boarding school they want for their child, but also discussing future university and career from as early as 12 years of age.”
Seeking ways of guaranteeing progression led IFE’s second school, Padworth College, to becoming an accredited NCUK Centre (The Northern Consortium of UK Universities) alongside delivering A-levels. The partnership has given their international students unprecedented access and support through the university application process, Dagistan says.
“There is so much more we could share best practice on.”
She says: “We’ve been able to really drive forward connections to a whole range of universities for our students; they can join webinars, speak to professors and directly receive information about the scholarships available.”
Nevertheless, Dagistan feels that a forum where independent school and HE staff could regularly engage on aspects of the whole international student experience would be extremely valuable.
Nixon agrees: “There is so much more we could share best practice on, from vetting and training of international agents, through student integration, pastoral care and well-being, alumni networking, careers development and language support,” she says.
That said, she acknowledges the immediate financial imperative of recruitment means it attracts the most attention. This April, BAISIS/BSA has added an additional event to their CPD calendar aimed at strengthening the budding connections between HE and school staff with collaboration on recruitment being the “hook”.
“The immediate financial imperative of recruitment means it attracts the most attention.”
In the meantime, are there any more immediate wins for schools? Dr Phil Purvis, deputy head, academic, Croydon High School, believes so. Speaking of his experience as head of student progression, higher education and careers at d’Overbroeck’s, Purvis says alumni networking between former and current international students paid dividends.
“It was particularly valuable for convincing those for whom improving their English did not seem a priority, that their ambitions would be constrained, especially for the most competitive courses, without putting in the time and effort required to attain a good IELTS score.”
During this period, the head of sixth form EAL, Dan Austin, gained the school membership of BALEAP, a global forum for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) professionals working in higher education. “We were the only school ever to join” says Austin, “but it gave our EAL team access to CPD alongside university colleagues which helped build our expertise”.
The department increased the relevance of EAL lessons and encouraged students to focus their language learning journey, “not only on meeting the ‘here and now’ needs of their A-levels, but anticipating the language demands of their future degree subject and their professional lives”, he adds.
At a time when the Government’s ambition is to improve the experience of international students before, during and after their studies, there is certainly much here for schools and universities to reflect on and discuss. If it is a conversation you would like to contribute to, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org