Policy paper

Education Sector Advisory Group minutes 9 December 2020

Updated 31 May 2024

Time, date and venue: 11am to 1pm, 9 December 2020 (online)

Chair: Graham Stuart, Minister for Exports, Department for International Trade (DIT)

Secretary: Geoff Gladding, DIT


  • Minister Donelan – Minister for Universities, DfE, co-Chair
  • Vivienne Stern – Director, Universities UK International (UUKi)
  • Alex Proudfoot – Chief Executive, Independent HE (IHE)
  • Colin Bell – Chief Executive, Council of British International Schools (COBIS)
  • Neil Leitch – Chief Executive, Early Years Alliance
  • Lesley Davies – Chair, UK Skills Partnership (UKSP)
  • Caroline Wright – Director General, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
  • Jodie Gray – Chief Executive, English UK
  • Sir Ciaran Devane, Director of Education, British Council
  • Professor Sir Steve Smith – International Education Champion

Guest speakers

  • Dan Ramsey, GREAT Campaign Director
  • Ed Matheson, International Trade in Education Services Policy team, DfE


  • Rachael Bartlett, International Higher Education, DfE
  • Geoff Gladding, Education Sector Team Lead, DIT

1. Welcome and introductions

1.1 Minister Stuart

Minister Stuart welcomed everyone to the final Education Sector Advisory Group (ESAG) of 2020 and in his opening remarks:

  • congratulated Jodie on her permanent appointment as Chief Executive of English UK
  • thanked Sir Ciaran for his contribution to ESAG as Chief Executive of the British Council as he leaves his post at the end of the year
  • reflected that international student recruitment numbers had been less impacted by the coronavirus pandemic than anticipated – this is likely due to action taken by individual providers, the sector and HMG collectively
  • spoke about DIT’s current activities across the world
  • welcomed Sir Steve to reflect on his role as the International Education Champion over the last 6 months
  • acknowledged the UK’s approach to the end of the EU transition period
  • noted that government continues to work on the IES update and hopes to publish it shortly. He thanked ESAG members for their engagement in the development of the IES update to date

1.2 Minister Donelan

Minister Donelan, in her opening remarks, referred to:

  • publishing the IES update remains a key priority for both DfE and DIT

  • on 4 December, wrote a letter providing positive messaging, reassurance and guidance, to both current and prospective international students

2. Minutes and actions from previous meetings

Geoff Gladding, DIT Education lead, reported on progress against actions from previous meetings:

4 February 2020 meeting

Action 5: DIT Education team to facilitate further meetings between Trade Policy Group and the Education sector.

Update: Ongoing.

1 September 2020 meeting

  • Action 1: DIT, DfE, Home Office /UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) to work with OfS on ensuring providers are engaging with HO/UKVI on visa requirements.

Update: Ongoing - OfS continue to liaise with DfE and HO, informing their engagement with providers.

  • Action 2: DfE/DIT committed to considering sector proposals on supporting the implementation of IES when submitted.

Update: Complete – discussion under agenda item 4.

  • Action 3: DfE and DIT to explore visa briefing idea with Home Office/UKVI.

Update: Ongoing - DfE continues to engage with HO on communication products.

9 December 2020

The following new action was agreed:

Action 1: Agenda item at ESAG on 13 April 2021 on a communications plan on messaging (for example, on immigration rules).

3. Overview of International Education Strategy Review

Geoff Gladding, DIT education team and Gemma Turnbull, DfE International HE team, shared an overview of the headline messages and proposed actions for the IES update. Also provided details of progress on the development of the IES update and publishing and thanked members for engagement.

Action 2: DfE/DIT to update ESAG members on timings for publication of the IES update when possible.

Action 3: DIT to explore further opportunities for engagement with UK Export Finance.

Action 4: Agenda item at ESAG on 13 April 2021 to review progress towards the achievement of the IES ambitions.

4. Proposals for sector join up in support of ESAG and the International Education Strategy

Jodie Gray, English UK, spoke on behalf of the ESAG sub-group formed by ESAG members and reported that this group meets monthly to align cross-sector activities and share updates on what is happening across the sectors. This sub-group’s discussions will inform members’ contributions to the main ESAG meetings moving forwards.

She set out that the sub-group have been focusing on:

  • developing a list of country priorities, identifying countries where the greatest impact could be made by the education sub-sectors and which could benefit from interventions from government
  • developing a risk register to identify key cross sector risks and mitigations to increase export wins, growth and revenue
  • joint activity in the priority countries across the whole education sector

Minister Stuart stated that DIT is piloting an Export Academy on the use of digital technology for SMEs, which would use webinars and online resources, and offer certification at the end. There was a positive response to this from ESAG members.

ESAG members are keen to complement wider government activity and visits, where relevant.

Action 5: A recurring agenda item will be added for an ESAG sub-group representative to lead a deep dive discussion into one of the sub-group’s identified risks and its mitigations at each future ESAG meeting.

Action 6: DIT and DfE to engage ESAG members in wider government and International Education Champion activities and visits, where appropriate.

5. International Education Champion priorities

Sir Steve Smith provided an update on his activities to date and his future priorities in line with the IES update:

  • strong enthusiasm from the sector about working with the Champion to take forward the education exports agenda and for the scale of the opportunity
  • the Champion role must take account of the priorities of the whole UK, including each of the devolved administrations
  • important for government and the sector to work together on the priority countries. These have been identified as markets where there is significant growth potential, but where barriers could be addressed.
  • international engagement has so far been virtual by necessity but hopes to shift to face to face and international visits over the coming months
  • virtual international engagement has taken place with a number of countries to date where there is interest in skills, English language, qualifications, schools, HE and trans-national education (TNE) with links to technology
  • next steps include DfE and DIT developing engagement plans for priority countries, and Sir Steve will continue to build relationships with counterparts in the priority countries, engaging with ESAG members as appropriate

6. Updates from ESAG members

6.1 British Council

British Council reported that value can be seen from Sir Steve’s role already. Research on the development of HE systems internationally is continuing with FCDO, with potential for a new programme on systems reform in education and hubs for the sector to access information on markets in one place.

6.2 British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) reported that BESA’s latest member survey (October 2020) projects that the fall in sales as a result of the pandemic will overall not be as low as anticipated, though this varies across different parts of the sector, for example, EdTech is performing well. Building trading relationships without being able to travel has been a challenge and there are longer term challenges on finding online ways to connect suppliers, as well as reconfiguring suppliers’ future relationship with Europe.

Thanks were expressed to Sir Steve for his well-received speech at BESA’s AGM and to DIT for their trade missions and roundtables. Bett - the global meeting place for the education technology community – usually takes place in London in January each year but due to the pandemic will be a virtual ‘BettFest’ in January 2021.

6.3 Council of British International Schools (COBIS)

Council of British International Schools (COBIS) reported concerns that British Schools Overseas (BSO) inspections have stopped, although some accreditation is still going ahead. There has been a shift of host country students moving from domestic state schools to international schools.

There are growth opportunities in digital, recruitment, EdTech and initial teacher training (ITT). However, there are also challenges ahead to ensure curriculums are positioned to deliver employability and skills needs internationally, and to adapt to the massive growth in online/blended learning. Recognition and promotion of quality will be important as modes of delivery become more varied.

6.4 Early Years Alliance

Early Years Alliance reported that there are no significant changes internationally for the sector and their focus remains predominantly on the domestic market. Some overseas interest has been generated in UK early years provision following a recent Early Years report. Early years interest more generally overseas is likely to be in the context of learning from other countries’ wider education reforms and other countries learning from the UK’s reforms.

6.5 English UK

English UK reported loss of revenue from coronavirus (COVID-19) and estimated loss of 80/90% in English Language student volumes compared to 2019. The seasonality of the sector means that concerns remain for 2021, with hopes for a 60% recovery by summer 2021. English UK expressed pride in the incredible resilience demonstrated by the sector.

English UK sees 2 phases moving forward. The first will see the launch of a road map to rebuild the market with a target to return student volumes by summer 2022 and the second phase will be driven by an ambition to bring the sector global pre-eminence.

6.6 Independent HE

Independent HE reported that onshore recruitment has been steady but there are concerns the pipeline is not quite where it should be for 2021. Independent Higher Education would welcome further discussions with DIT regarding growing foreign investment interest and how best to manage this. They would also welcome discussions with DIT and DfE about the specific needs of SME providers, particularly regarding access to the Quality Assurance Agency’s Transnational Education services and understanding the regulatory regimes of various markets.

Action 7: DfE and DIT to follow-up with IHE on TNE support for SMEs and foreign investment.

6.7 UK Skills Partnership

UK Skills Partnership reported that promoting UK TVET is helping to raise the profile of the UK Skills sector. Focusing on removing barriers to education regulation would support COVID-19 recovery for awarding bodies.

Action 8: DIT to follow up with UK Skills partnership to discuss the barriers to recognition.

6.8 Universities UK International (UUKi)

Universities UK International reported that the UK HE sector is in a much better position than originally thought in terms of COVID-19 impacts. A recent enrolment survey of member institutions reported a 23% increase in some areas on student numbers.

To date, the international strand of the #WeAreTogether campaign has reached more than 7 million people; achieved more than 2 million video views; supported a combined audience of 250,000 prospective international students via online events; and helped 67% of surveyed prospective international students feel more confident to continue with their plans to study in the UK after engaging with the campaign.

UUKi expressed concern regarding the impact on EU student numbers post-transition. UUK published detailed guidance for institutions in October on managing security related risks in the context of internationalisation. UUKi have published research on TNE and the pipeline from TNE to onshore recruitment. Their upcoming research will focus on where the UK has lost market share (to be published in summer 2021).

7. EU exit and preparations for the end of the transition period

Ed Matheson reported that new rules will apply to trade in education services from 1 January 2021 when the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union. Negotiations with the EU are ongoing. We will continue to work with education exporters to help them understand and prepare for these changes.

8. Update on the GREAT campaign

Dan Ramsey provided an update on the GREAT campaign.

The GREAT Britain campaign showcases the whole of the UK, to inspire the world and encourage people to visit, do business, invest and study in the UK. The campaign helps British companies to export for the first time and expand into new markets.

The campaign works in 145 countries across the globe, increasing jobs and growth across many sectors, throughout the UK.

9. Any other business

Sir Ciaran expressed his thanks to Ministers’ Stuart and Donelan for their active engagement with ESAG, and to DIT/DfE officials and all ESAG members for his time as a member of the group.

Minister Stuart reported that 9 out of the 10 top exporting countries saw their exports fall in 2019 as a result of global trade tensions, with the UK the only exception. This demonstrated that the UK can succeed even in the toughest times and that the country, including the education sector will recover after COVID.

Date of next meeting

13 April 2021, 11.00 to 13.00.