Monday, 17 July 2017

How many overseas students are there?

With more-than-usual amounts of chatter around UK HE policy at the moment, its useful to remind ourselves about evidence and actuality. With this in mind, I’m presenting two views of UK HE and its reliance upon students from other countries.

The chart below shows this – it’s drawn from HESA data, and shows the headcount of students – all levels, all modes – from outside the UK. This includes other EU and EEA countries, and students from all other countries.  It’s about domicile recorded for fees purposes, which practitioners will know is not a simple correlation with passport.

The data show that there’s a wild and fluctuating market, with sharp declines and even sharper rises. It must be a nightmare for universities in such a market – no wonder the emphasis given to recruitment activities.

Let’s look at a different chart. Again, students from outside the UK. The data here tell a different story – a stable market (you might even say strong and stable). Universities can concentrate on what that do best – teaching and supporting students learning; and conducting research. Our global partnerships look safe and secure.

It’s the same data of course. The trickery is in the Y axis (the horizontal one) – in the first chart the scale is truncated to start at 415k students; in the second chart the scale starts at 0.  The first gives the detail, the second the big picture. The chicanery is that the eye is tempted to focus on the line not the numbers. The conclusions drawn from the two charts are quite different.

There’s two lessons in this.

Firstly, don’t be fooled by bad charts. Darrell Huff’s How to lie with statistics is essential reading for everyone, in my view.

Secondly, the details does matter. Although total numbers are stable, the total is made up of the totals at all of the UK’s universities and HEIs – there’s almost 200 components to this, and maintaining, or growing, your numbers make the difference between adding jobs and giving a better student experience, or retrenchment, retraction and job losses.

So, look at the detail; remember the bigger picture might say something different; and try not to mistake wood for tees, and vice versa!

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