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In my opinion

Foreign-friendly Canada threatens the U.K.’s international student dominance

Montreal, Toronto punch above their weight in providing value to international students.


The suggestion that the British Conservative Party may consider a cap on international (non-EU) students raises the question, yet again, of the United Kingdom’s interest in international higher education students. Despite protestations to the contrary during the Prime Minister David Cameron’s trade visit to India in February, the perception that the U.K.’s higher education student visa regime is discouraging applications appears to be having a negative impact on international student enrolments at U.K. institutions. A recent survey conducted by Universities UK of its membership suggested the U.K.’s international enrolment figures are not keeping pace with growth in the global higher education market, and Universities UK Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge, identifies Canada as being one of the competitor nations the U.K. needs to watch.

Now there is further evidence that the U.K.’s higher education visa policies threaten its position within the international student market. A new research publication jointly produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Bank of Communications Limited examines the return on investment of a number of popular student destinations. Its findings show Canadian and Chinese cities ranked ahead of the U.K.’s most historic and world-renowned destinations.

The Bank of Communications Sea Turtle Index: benchmarking potential returns on investment in international education (PDF), the report, is named for a Mandarin term referring to returned graduates of overseas universities. The report ranks cities on the basis of five factors: educational returns, financial returns, real estate returns, work experience and social experience. The researchers determined the top ten ranking of cities with the best potential rate of return for international students (in descending order):

  1. Montreal, Canada (7 universities)
  2. London, U.K. (22 universities)
  3. Hong Kong, China (9 universities)
  4. Toronto, Canada (5 universities)
  5. Cambridge, U.K. (2 universities)
  6. Oxford, U.K. (2 universities)
  7. Boston, U.S.A. (53 higher education institutions)
  8. Sydney, Australia (8 university campuses)
  9. Zurich, Switzerland (2 official higher education institutions)
  10. New York, U.S.A. (50+ higher education institution campuses)

While British and American higher education hubs continue to rank highly on educational returns, the report argues that increasingly restrictive visa requirements undermine the high educational value offered by U.K. and American universities. Lower ranked, but competitive, universities in internationally receptive Canadian and Asian cities are leapfrogging their educationally superior competitors by outperforming them in the remaining four indicators. Despite the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal’s media release portending the end of Montreal as an international educational destination, the Economist/Bank of Communications study suggests that the policy direction taken by the U.K. on student visas is sufficiently self-damaging to catapult Canadian cities into world-beater status.

What is especially interesting is the relatively small number of education institutions in the highly ranked Canadian cities compared to the American and U.K. cities featured in the top ten. Although a consistent methodology is lacking, a simple assessment of the number of degree-granting/university-level institutions by city highlights Montreal and Toronto’s relatively small number of institutions compared to those of their principal competitors, especially London and Boston. The two cities with fewer institutions, Oxford and Cambridge, contain the oldest universities in the English-speaking world and have been international student destinations for centuries. In these contexts, Montreal’s and Toronto’s performances in this index are remarkable.

Big issue is cost of student visas

The Sea Turtle Index suggests that Canadian universities are in a strong competitive position compared to their sister institutions in the U.K. Another recent report suggests another possible advantage for Canadian universities over their British rivals: The UK Higher Education Regulation Group (HEBRG) studied the cost of U.K. visa regulation requirements to higher education institutions. The resulting Final Report: Cost and benefit analysis project on immigration regulation (PDF, July 2013) is the most comprehensive study conducted on this question of regulatory cost. It found that higher education providers will spend £66.8 million ($106 million CAD) in the 2012-13 academic year to meet U.K. government requirements for education institutions sponsoring international student visas. On average, U.K. universities spend between £312,000 and £358,000 ($490,000 to $567,000 CAD) per annum to meet visa oversight requirements. Unsurprisingly, the study found that these costs vary wildly between institutions. However, the variation was not a function of economies of scale or level of international activity but due to constant rule changes, inconsistent application of visa regulation rules, and universities’ fear of losing visa sponsor status.

The U.K. government continues to speak out of both sides of its mouth, encouraging the “best and brightest” to come to its universities while building a chaotic and increasingly proscriptive regulatory system designed to increase the difficulty for legitimate overseas students to attend U.K. higher education institutions. The student market receives one message from the Prime Minister and those departments responsible for higher education and another message from the Home Office: you can try to study here, but we will make it bloody difficult. Furthermore, the culture of fear surrounding visa regulation in the U.K. is leading to significant unnecessary administrative spending by universities – funds that could be directed at reducing international student fees or making improvements to international student support and education quality.

There is no question that Montreal and Toronto are punching above their weight, according to the Bank of Communications Sea Turtle Index. Both cities have significantly fewer universities and other higher education providers than do London, Hong Kong and Boston. Furthermore, Montreal and Toronto’s flagship universities, although strong international performers, do not enjoy the same brand recognition held by Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or the London School of Economics. Canada’s emerging position is largely due to taking a reasonable, welcoming approach to student migration. Canadian universities and policy makers should see the U.K.’s ongoing struggle with immigration as an opportunity to overtake Britain in the competition for international students.

Andrew M. Boggs is a visiting fellow of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, Oxford University and a former policy adviser to the Government of Ontario. He lives in the U.K.


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  1. Andrew Boggs / July 29, 2013 at 07:18

    UPDATE 29 July 2013: the UK Minister with responsibility for higher education has been reported to state that there is “no plan” for a British cap on international student numbers. More information may be found The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has also just published an international education strategy which includes growing student numbers while still reducing the UK’s net migration figures