What does the Journey to a Million mean for the international student experience?

Anne Marie Graham, Chief Executive, UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)

On the surface, it seems like the Journey to a Million will be an easy ride. Ambitious recruitment targets, competitive post-study work routes, and its response to the global pandemic have put UK education in a strong recruitment position. The targets set in the UK Government’s International Education Strategy in March 2019 have already been exceeded, and we saw record numbers of visa applications in summer 2022.

Setting targets is relatively straightforward, but creating the right environment to achieve them is more difficult. Inevitably, on any journey, there will be opportunities and challenges —in this context, factors that support increases in recruitment, and factors that hamper our efforts to welcome more international students. The UK can’t be complacent about its academic and cultural offer, nor can it overlook the significance of the international student experience in demonstrating this offer to prospective applicants. That’s why hundreds of thousands of international students speaking about a high-quality UK education can be invaluable marketing, and why UKCISA’s new #WeAreInternational Student Charter can help support international student recruitment.

UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) represents the interests of international students in the UK. We ensure that the international student experience is at the heart of policymaking in the UK. Since 2019, UKCISA has made significant progress in capturing the authentic student voice and translating it into action. 

Putting international students at the heart of strategy

While we welcomed a new International Education Strategy in March 2019 that set out ambitions to grow UK international student numbers, we were somewhat disappointed to see that there was no mention of the international students themselves in this strategy. Where was the international student experience in these ambitions? 

UKCISA set out to ensure that any future strategy update would include the international student experience. We did this in two ways: by advocacy with government departments involved in implementing the strategy, and by creating a mechanism to amplify the voice of international students. 

UKCISA relaunched #WeAreInternational in late 2019, with a renewed focus on sharing the lived experience of international students across the education sector. At the same time, UKCISA established its #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador programme, inviting current international students to develop their policy influencing skills to help shape the policy environment for international students in the UK.

The first team of student ambassadors began work in March 2020, just days before the UK closed down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite being quarantined across the UK and their home countries, the ambassadors built a compelling profile, speaking about their own experiences of studying in the UK during Covid-19, and enabling UKCISA to share real insight with UK governments throughout the pandemic, and affect the policies and concessions that emerged to support continuing and prospective international students.

The international student ambassadors’ powerful and influential voices, and their ability to speak truth to power, contributed to the inclusion of a prominent commitment to Enhancing the international student experience in the 2021 refresh of the International Education Strategyi, as well as clear actions to help achieve this. Nonetheless, there is always the ambition to do more, and the desire to develop a way to evaluate the UK’s success in this area.

Actions speak louder than words

To help us evaluate and communicate the UK education offer, UKCISA’s #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors have recently developed, in collaboration with our members, a #WeAreInternational Student Charterii for the UK education sector. A student-led document, developed with the input of students and staff from across the international education sector in the UK, the charter outlines the fundamental principles for delivering a world-class international student experience, from pre-arrival to post-graduation.

As the UK’s International Education Champion, Professor Sir Steve Smith puts it, “The #WeAreInternational Student Charter outlines what we’re all striving for in the UK — a world-class educational experience.”iii 

UKCISA’s member institutions and organisations are pledging to work towards the provision of the highest level of international student experience and support, according to the five principles highlighted in the #WeAreInternational Student Charter.

Underpinning institutional strategies

Any institution’s recruitment strategy should reflect the need to support increased numbers of international students. Successful recruitment inevitably puts pressure on institutional resources that support international students, from admission to graduation. There are aspects of the student experience that are more visible than others, for example, the availability of affordable and accessible accommodation for students and their dependants. But higher international student numbers also require more capacity in international student advice teams, increased access to health and wellbeing services, and more resource for careers and employability support.

With the projected growth in international students, we must ensure that our sector has the structures in place to ensure that these students would have a world-class experience. From an accessible, user-friendly, application system and a world-class academic offer, to unrivalled careers and employability support—the #WeAreInternational Student Charter is an essential tool to showcase the excellence of the UK’s offer, but also to reflect on where providers can continue to enhance their offer to international students.

It's not just providers that can benefit from the charter—sector organisations that play a key role in the international student experience, like UCAS, can also use these commitments as a benchmark for the services they provide, and as a framework when developing service provision and products for international student recruitment with higher education providers across the UK.

High-level support for the charter and embedding its principles into the international student experience can help the UK education sector’s profile in an increasingly competitive market. New Zealand has had an international student charter for some years now, and other competitors will likely follow. But the UK’s international student charter is uniquely student-led, and this is something to be proud of, and to showcase on the international stage.

Challenges will remain for the student experience. In a global cost of living crisis, the UK remains an expensive destination for many students, and the need to demonstrate the value of our education sector will be stronger than ever. But by committing to upholding the principles of the #WeAreInternational Student Charter, we send a clear message to current and prospective international students.

i Department for Education and Department for International Trade (2021), International Education strategy: 2021 update.

ii UKCISA, WeAreInternational Student Charter. Accessed December 22nd, 2022.

iii Ibid.

Anne Marie Graham

Chief Executive, UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) 

Anne Marie Graham is Chief Executive at UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs), leading the organisation to achieve its vision that every international student who comes to the UK has a positive experience. Prior to this, she was Director of Chevening, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office's flagship global scholarship scheme at the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Previously, Anne Marie was Head of Outward Mobility and Assistant Director, Programmes at Universities UK International, where she led on several significant programme and projects promoting international mobility, including scholarships, TNE and outward mobility. At the National Centre for Languages, she directed the development of new national standards in translation and interpreting, in support of the UK Government's Routes into Languages programme. Anne Marie is a member of several high-level sector advisory boards and was recently appointed a Commissioner on the International Higher Education Commission, informing recommendations for a new International Education Strategy.