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Friends for life

Maddalaine Ansell argues that the UK needs to look after its international alumni

International students bring new ideas and knowledge to UK campuses, broaden the university experience for domestic students, help to sustain and enrich UK universities and have a positive impact on local communities and economies. Most importantly, when they graduate from students to alumni, they take their trust in the UK—and a sense of being connected to it—back to their own countries.

But all relationships require effort, and it is not enough to presume that a good experience of the UK will generate warm feelings towards it—or to see alumni primarily as a source of philanthropy. The UK has recognised that it needs to look after its alumni in a more systematic way.

In the 2021 update to its International Education Strategy, the government announced that the British Council would be exploring options for attracting and supporting a global UK alumni network.

Last year, we at the British Council launched Alumni UK—a global network for people from around the world who have studied in the UK as an overseas student. Over 15,000 people have now enrolled and our target is to get to 150,000 by 2025. Next month, we will hold Alumni UK Live, an online festival giving graduates who have studied in the UK access to professional development opportunities and the chance to connect to other international alumni.

The aim is to offer alumni a worldwide professional network through which they can continue learning, develop employability skills, make connections and share their experience and expertise, as well as to keep UK alumni connected to the UK—recognising that they are of incalculable value.

Basis of trust

The British Council’s 2018 report The Value of Trust summarised the many studies that had looked at why trust is the bedrock of all strong relationships, how it is earned and why it matters. It concluded that trust is what allows us to believe in the reliability of others and brings the possibility of cooperation to satisfy mutual interests.

Economically, high-trust relationships have lower transaction costs and stimulate investment, production and trade, which in turn lead to economic growth.

In terms of connectedness, Universities UK International’s 2019 report International Graduate Outcomes found that 77 per cent of international graduates said they would be more likely to do business with the UK as a result of studying there; 81 per cent intended to build professional links with organisations in the UK; more than 80 per cent would recommend studying in the UK; and 88 per cent would visit as tourists.


The UK therefore benefits hugely from so many alumni ending up in positions of power or influence. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s 2022 Soft Power Index found that 55 current world leaders had been educated in the UK—more than any other country except the US. This is partly due to the prestige of flagship scholarship programmes such as Chevening and Commonwealth Scholarships, which attract extraordinarily talented young people to study at UK universities.

Alumni who become world leaders are only the tip of the iceberg. Many others, including some of those on Great Scholarships funded jointly by the British Council and universities, or through Women in Stem Scholarships, become diplomats, government officials, scientists and business and community leaders.

This is important because many of the most pressing challenges facing the world today require cooperation not only at the government-to-government level but beyond. Civil society, including universities, businesses and community groups, needs to tackle poverty, pandemics, climate change and the management of scarce resources.

Sustainable development

In hitting the International Education Strategy’s target of 600,000 overseas students studying in the UK each year, the higher education sector has educated a huge number of people with whom the UK can cooperate to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Study UK Alumni Awards give many examples of the exceptional contribution UK alumni have made to science and sustainability in their own countries, including tackling pollution in Jamaica and ghost fishing in Nigeria, where abandoned fishing gear continues to trap wildlife. UK alumni also helped to guide public health policy during the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan.

It matters that these friends are spread around as many countries as possible. The latest statistics suggest that the UK is doing very well at attracting students from China, India and Nigeria and is making good progress, from a lower base, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia—testament to Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion, as well as the Study UK campaign and the tireless work of international teams in universities around the world. Applications from non-EU international students as of January 2023 have increased by 21,050 (29 per cent) since 2020, to 94,410.

But the UK is doing less well in terms of applications from EU countries, which have dropped by more than 52 per cent since 2020, to 20,500. As these countries are its nearest neighbours, trading partners and allies, the UK needs to maintain strong links with them and must redouble its efforts here. Attracting students through marketing, scholarships, bursaries and strategic institutional partnerships that facilitate exchange of students and early career researchers is a highly effective way to do this, and so is maintaining connections with alumni.

Alumni are appreciating assets for the UK. It should invest in them.

Maddalaine Ansell is director of education at the British Council.