2020 at UKCISA: a review of the year

From our Chief Executive
16 December 2020
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When we published our strategic plan in January, we couldn’t imagine the challenge that lay ahead.

We knew that 2020 would be challenging, with the UK exiting the EU and introducing a new immigration system. But we had not envisaged a global pandemic to further challenge international students and our members, who have shown extraordinary resilience and adaptability this year.

International students were of course directly impacted by the first wave, as travel restrictions were introduced and concerns about involuntary overstaying created uncertainty and upheaval. As the travel restrictions spread across the world, we worked closely with the Home Office and colleagues across the sector to secure clear concessions for all affected students, not just those from certain countries.

As the pandemic spread, and the world locked down, demand for our services changed. I’m immensely grateful to our members for all their hard work to ensure the best possible student experience, and incredibly proud of how the team at UKCISA adapted to ensure that members and international students have continued to be supported while studying or working.

For example, during the peak of the first wave we increased the number of sessions for students on our advice line. And just as our colleagues in institutions across the UK have worked to take teaching online, we had to work to take our distinctive training programme online. While we planned to develop some online delivery as part of our new strategic plan, Covid restrictions meant that we had to accelerate our progress, deciding on platforms and delivery models as we went along. Thankfully, we have received great feedback on our new format events from attendees, and I hope that we continue to meet your requirements in the new year.

Before lockdown, we appointed our first cohort of #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors – and it has been an absolute privilege and inspiration working with them so closely over the course of this year. From advising on core activities, to speaking at sector meetings, conferences and events, their knowledge and dedication has been integral to delivering on our ambition to put the student voice at the heart of policymaking. I’m delighted that we have been able to appoint another exceptional cohort of ambassadors, who will officially join the programme from January (you can read more about the new ambassadors here).

As our profile continues to grow, we will use our platform to amplify their voices. Our ambition with the #WeAreInternational campaign is to facilitate students talking to each other and empower them to become partners in shaping a quality student experience. In October, we officially relaunched the campaign with a new website and a refreshed look and feel – the next step will be to gather case studies and best practice from our members, to demonstrate the value of international education and partnerships and showcase the stories of students themselves. We know that policymakers are keen to hear from students first-hand – and we are in the early stages of developing an International Student Charter, which we called for earlier this year in our ‘Delivering a world-class international student experience’ position paper.

Both the #WeAreInternational campaign and International Student Charter are key elements of our work to help achieve the ambitions of the International Education Strategy – and develop mechanisms for students to contribute, have their say and identify any gaps. By identifying these gaps and targeting our lobbying and advocacy work we can work to deliver tangible outcomes; for example, just today the UK and Indian Governments have agreed the mutual recognition of academic qualifications, beginning with master’s degrees. This is something we called for in our position paper, based on feedback and input from international students themselves – and is a great example of what we can achieve when we work together, to make a difference to a huge number of international students. You can read more about why putting the student voice at the heart of policymaking is so central to what we do in a recent blog I wrote for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

Of course, one of the other huge shifts of not being able to meet in person meant that we could no longer deliver our annual members conference or student forum in the way we had planned. While we all missed not being able to catch-up and hear about the excellent work being done to support international students across the sector, we did derive many benefits from moving our events delivery online. Most importantly, we were able to reach more members than ever before and be incredibly responsive to the rapidly changing policy landscape – from running a Q&A session with the Home Office, which so many of you attended, to the inaugural UKCISA Fest which saw more than 400 international students join us for a week-long programme of events, with the likes of Professor Sir Steve Smith, Larissa Kennedy from the NUS and Student Minds. Designed in partnership with the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors, UKCISA Fest highlighted key policy concerns from a student perspective, including mental health, graduate employability and the need to prioritise student support.

Sitting behind all of this activity has been a concerted cross-sector effort to work with the Government to ensure the best possible outcomes for international students. This year our primary focus areas have been on immigration/visa flexibility in light of the pandemic, the impact of Brexit and changes to EU fee regulations, and informing the development of the Graduate Route. Across all these areas, our priority has been to seek clarity from UK governments and ensure members and students have the information they need as quickly as possible.

I am very proud of how we have adapted and continued to deliver our core services throughout this year. I hope you all have a restful festive season after such a frenetic year, and I look forward to connecting and engaging with you all in 2021 to continue working together to deliver a world-class international student experience.