Skip to main content

15 June 2020

How government can help universities bounce back after Covid and Brexit

Jo Johnson outlines how the UK higher education sector can overcome these twin shocks


In a new report, Jo Johnson outlines how the government can help the UK higher education sector overcome the twin shocks of Covid-19 and Brexit.

The former universities minister says that an anticipated 50-75% drop in international students as a result of coronavirus would expose real vulnerabilities in university finances.

He argues that this will compound the sector’s problems, as universities have long been tied down by bureaucracy, obsessions with poorly-crafted immigration targets and petty rules.

Johnson says that in order to give meaning to its Global Britain slogan, the government must allow higher education institutions to unleash their potential.

Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Harvard Kennedy School, his report makes the following recommendations for how the government can help universities recover and rebuild in the market for international students:

  1. Set a clear ambition to retain global leadership in international education: Recommit to existing 2030 exports targets and create an additional goal for the UK to be the number one study destination worldwide after the US.
  2. Send a clear signal that Global Britain is open and welcome, with a best-in-class student visa offer: The government should turbocharge the competitiveness of the UK visa offer, with the doubling of post-study work visas (Graduate Immigration Route) from 2 to 4 years.
  3. Double student numbers from India by 2024: The UK should capitalise on the post-study work visa change and seek to rebalance the mix of international students coming to the UK. It should launch a new marketing drive in India and include India, alongside China, in the low-risk country category.
  4. Re-focus the British Council on education promotion: It should:
    • establish and operate a world-class global student mobility network to replace UK participation in Erasmus;
    • create and manage a worldwide StudyUK alumni network;
    • and negotiate reciprocal recognition agreements with governments which don’t currently recognise degrees with significant elements of online learning.
  5. End the hostile bureaucracy: The Home Office needs to step back, increase flexibility on English proficiency testing and Tier 4 visa issuance and hold universities to account for any non-compliance.
  6. Prepare continuity arrangements in light of Covid-19: HMG should mitigate the effect of international travel restrictions for international students.
  7. Put liberalisation of trade in education at the heart of FTAs: Make education exports central to the UK’s post-Brexit trade strategy, so that the UK government prioritises liberalisation of trade and cooperation in research and education in each of its prospective FTAs.
  8. Increase transparency in progress towards the targets: Require the International Education Champion to report progress to Parliament annually.

International education is one of the UK’s few globally competitive sectors. Income from it makes it possible to undertake loss-making research and deliver strategically-important lab- and studio-based courses costing more than domestic fees. To secure our post-Brexit future as a knowledge economy and trading nation, we need to go all out to achieve ambitious education export goals.

Jo Johnson, President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s and Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

Related departments