There is little doubt that UK Education is a global superpower. The year-on-year increase in numbers of people around the world buying into British education — either by studying in the UK or by enrolling at a British curriculum school or university in their own country — is testament to the high esteem in which UK education is viewed. However, there are signs that the UK’s influence is fading. The question is: Can UK Education retain its preeminent position going forward?
British universities have attracted the top students from around the world for the best part of a century. Oxford ranks as the number one university in the world, and the UK currently is the second most popular university destination in the world for international students, behind the United States.
The same can be said of education for school age children. Britain has some of the very best boarding schools in the world and they still attract significant numbers from across the globe. In 2021 there were 24,674 students whose parents live overseas studying in British independent schools.
British education has never remained confined to its own shores. Britain’s top universities, as well as its boarding and day schools, have long been the model for educational excellence that has been adopted around the world. It is no coincidence that Harvard and Yale look like Oxford and Cambridge; or that boarding schools in Australia would fit in well in the Home Counties.
“It is no coincidence that Harvard and Yale look like Oxford and Cambridge.”
The past twenty years have seen an explosion of British international schools opening up around the world. There were 2,584 English-speaking international schools in 2000 which grew to 12,119 international schools with enrolment of 5.58 million students in 2021 and this trend set to continue.
One other significant educational export is that of examinations. There are also thousands of students internationally taking UK examinations such as the IGCSE, and professional qualifications in everything from accountancy to health and safety.
The importance of exporting UK Education should not just be seen purely in economic terms — it is far from being the UK’s financially significant export — indeed UK education is only the UK’s fifth largest services export sector. Rather, its true importance is in terms of the “soft power” that it brings.
“Britain’s ‘soft power’ is embodied most visibly by the prime ministers, chancellors and presidents who studied in the UK in their younger years.”
“Soft power” is a measure of a nation’s influence: it is about “hearts and minds”. The results from the British Council’s 2018 youth perceptions survey of the G20 and those of various other rankings such as the Portland Soft Power 30, both conclude that the UK is one of the leading “soft power” nations in the world. Britain’s influence in this area is disproportionate — this is in no small part due to part that UK Education plays.
Britain has a long history of educating the world’s elite. Its “soft power” is embodied most visibly by the prime ministers, chancellors and presidents who studied in the UK in their younger years. At present, the UK educated the current leaders of around one in four countries in the world.
As a consequence of the formative times spent studying in the British system, these senior figures around the world have a greater bond and affinity with the UK which can manifest itself in diplomatic, ethical and trade decision-making. For this reason, international students have been called “the best ambassadors a nation has”.
“The jury is out on whether or not Britain can maintain its status and influence on global education.”
The UK examination system also plays a significant part here. Britain de facto has an influential role in setting professional standards around the world. For example, UK accreditation means that UK standards in accountancy, health and safety, data management etc. become the global norms.
UK Education finds itself at an important juncture, and the jury is out on whether or not Britain can maintain its status and influence on global education into the mid-21st century.
There is no doubt that the UK’s hold in higher education is slipping. Oxford may still rank at number one, but the UK only has seven universities in the world top 50; the US has 25. Alongside this, the U.S. toppled the UK from its long-held “soft power” top spot of educating the most world leaders in 2018; and latest figures show that the trend is continuing. Likewise Independent Schools Council Census data indicate that there was a 15 per cent drop in overseas boarding numbers in 2021.
UK Education’s ongoing importance is likely to be worked out in two key political arenas. The first is Europe. What will be the impact of Brexit? In 2018-19, there were 143,000 students from the EU studying in UK universities – accounting for 30 per cent of the international student population. The funding arrangements for EU students studying in the UK will undoubtedly be an important factor here. It is important that Britain remains attractive as a place of study for our European cousins.
“Much will depend on whether China continues to allow its youth to study abroad.”
The second is China. What will be in the impact of China’s relationship with the West? Given the importance of China as a supplier of international students around the world, much will depend on whether China continues to allow its youth to study abroad, and whether the UK or the US is seen as the most desirable English-speaking destination. The growth of British curriculum schools in China may be influential here, but there are already signs that these are coming under ever greater regulation, and that Chinese parents are “losing confidence” in UK boarding schools.
One very significant factor will be the extent to which China develops world-class higher education institutions of its own over the coming years. China already has five universities in the top hundred, and a betting man would say that this is likely to increase over the coming years.