Global Mobility Issues for the Education Sector

education global mobility issues


The quest for excellence is encouraging a growing number of higher education institutions (HEIs) to reach out to international audiences, partners and collaborators. Increasingly, national governments are also recognising the advantages international engagement brings to their education systems, economy and society.

The landscape that UK HEIs operate in is changing. The market for higher education has become increasingly competitive globally and many HEIs now regularly manage employees who spend time working overseas. However, the complex international tax and regulatory obligations that this working can trigger is much misunderstood by universities, increasing the risk of reputational damage. A successful global mobility framework can support HEIs with this issue and will provide a standardised process for managing the risks that come with working internationally.



Globally there is an increased focus on immigration and employment compliance, with increased security at international borders and governments keen to demonstrate that they are protecting their resident labour force.

It is important for HEIs to consider the immigration and employment implications for non-EEA nationals travelling to the UK for the purpose of work related activity, prior to any such travel taking place.

Immigration rules and regulations vary between jurisdictions and their application depends on the nationality of the individual.

The UK Government is committed to reducing net migration and immigration rules are stringent in response to the current political climate.

In the UK, the requirement to obtain UK work and immigration authorisation is determined by the type of activities that an individual intends to undertake. Where productive work will be undertaken by a non-EEA national, there will always be a requirement to complete a UK work and immigration authorisation. The type of work and/or immigration authorisation that will be needed, will depend on the type, nature and duration of the activity that will take place. Nationals of certain countries (for example, India/South Africa) will also need to obtain a visa for the UK, irrespective of the purpose or duration of the visit.


Employment status of academic visitors & migrant workers 

Employees and other “workers” coming into the UK are covered by a range of employment law rights that must be recognised to avoid liability for the UK organisation. Examples include rights to national minimum (and soon living) wage, paid holidays and pension auto-enrolment. Many of these rights will start to apply from day one. These rights should be identified in advance and the exercise should include a careful classification of individuals (for example visiting lecturers) into employee or non-employee status to identify what obligations exist.

We have seen some HEIs provide limited or no support to their internationally mobile employees (for example, visiting professors or researchers), whether this be UK inbound or internationally. This can result in non-compliance with immigration law by both the individual and the HEI. Not only is non-compliance a threat to the HEI, it is also a risk to the individual.

Should an individual be refused a visa, refused entry at the border or found to be non-compliant, notwithstanding the risk of fines and detention, they may also be banned from future travel to the country for both business and tourism. This can cause reputational damage for the HEI and lead to an individual having an adverse immigration history which can impact any future global travel.


Shifting political backdrop 

The global landscape for higher education is changing dramatically.

Three areas of activity are of primary importance to global mobility in the higher education sector: the international mobility of students, international research collaboration and transnational education (TNE). Of these, student mobility has arguably received the most attention from governments. International student demand is often perceived as a signal of the global relevance of a country’s education provision. Governments across the world have therefore become key players in shaping this trend.

The unlimited growth of internationalisation of all kinds – including massive global student mobility, the expansion of branch campuses, franchised and joint degrees, the use of English as a language for teaching and research worldwide and many other elements – is seeing a fundamental shift in response to protectionist immigration policies.

Increased problems obtaining visas, an unwelcoming atmosphere for foreigners and other issues are causing a decline in international student numbers in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Yet knowledge remains international. Cross-national research collaboration continues to increase. Most universities recognise that providing an international perspective to students is central in the 21st century. Global student mobility continues to increase, although at a slower rate than in the past – with about five million students studying outside of their home countries.

The major European mobility and collaboration scheme, Erasmus+, remains in place – and might even receive additional funding. The ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – region is moving in similar directions as the European Union in promoting harmonisation of its academic structures, improving quality assurance and increasing regional mobility and collaboration in its higher education sector.

The success of right-wing nationalist and populist forces in many European countries is having a significant impact on higher education policy. The controversy relating to the Central European University in Hungary shows one instance of an increasingly authoritarian government trying to eliminate an international university known for its liberal views.

The advent of nationalist governments in Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland will likely have an impact on higher education policy and on international higher education in those countries.

Even where the far right is not in power, as in France, Italy and the Netherlands, the ideas of these parties, once relegated to an unimportant fringe, now have an influence on public discourse.

The Conservative government in the United Kingdom is still struggling with the consequences of Brexit on British universities’ participation in European programmes and with the importance of international students and faculty for its knowledge economy.


Global appeal 

Global competition is intensifying in the sector. There are 162 HEIs in the UK, but thousands in China and Malaysia for instance. And they’re getting better and better so we’re now operating in the most competitive global marketplace we have ever seen. If we’re going to sustain our world-class institutions it’s vital we’re able to recruit, retain and reward the people who lead and develop them.

For universities to compete for the best in the way of international talent, upping the pay stakes matters.

Only a few people can do the job of the VC and often we’re competing with North America and Australia for talent where HEIs pay a lot higher. In the UK we’re fishing from a fairly small pool of quality individuals, and because of that they do seek high salaries.


Declining appeal of English 

Debate about the negative impact of English on the quality of teaching is gaining momentum in countries such as Germany and Denmark. In Italy, an intense fight at the Polytechnic University of Milan about the use of English in graduate education resulted in a court ruling that might limit the use of English in Italian higher education drastically on constitutional grounds.

Social scientists in many countries are expressing concern that the demands for publishing in English international academic journals are making it difficult for them to stay active in their national discourse. English will remain the predominant language of scientific communication and scholarship, but its dominance may be reaching a ceiling.

Another trend to watch concerns transnational education. A branch campus being established by the University of Groningen from the Netherlands, in Yantai, Shandong province in China, with China Agricultural University was suddenly cancelled by the university after protests by faculty and students in Groningen because of possible limitations on academic freedom in China and because of a lack of local consultation about the project.

This might well affect other joint ventures in China, and perhaps elsewhere, as both sides look more critically at the structural, academic and political implications of branch campus development and other initiatives.

Overall, it is possible that the halcyon days of growth in branch campuses, educational hubs, franchise operations and other forms of transnational education are over.


A global concern

While there are increasingly powerful political, economic and academic challenges to the internationalisation process in Europe and North America, the non-Western world shows an increasing interest in internationalisation. But, even there, there are problems. The two largest players, China and India, present some challenges.

Many have commented that China, in some respects, is becoming more ‘academically closed’. Increasing restrictions on internet access, a growing emphasis on ideological courses, problems of academic freedom (especially in the social sciences) and other issues are indicative of this trend.

In spite of significant increases in inward student mobility, China is, in general, not the first choice for students in terms of country of destination and many students, particularly from Western countries, do not seek to do their degrees there, mainly going for language and culture training.

For the first time, India has made internationalisation a key goal of its national higher education policy. But India lacks relevant infrastructure and it struggles to shape its academic structures to host large numbers of international students. The logistical challenges are considerable. Today, India educates only 45,000 international students, mainly from South Asia and Africa.

It is likely that students seeking foreign academic degrees or an international experience will, to some extent, shift their focus away from the major host countries in North America and Europe, which are seen as less welcoming. Countries such as Canada and Germany, which are perceived as more receptive towards international students, may benefit from this trend as long as their policies remain stable.

Students may seek alternatives – perhaps in China, India, Malaysia, Russia or other countries. But all of these potential beneficiaries have problems.

The call for an alternative approach, with a stronger emphasis on ‘internationalisation at home’, by the rector of the University of Amsterdam, as well as by Jones and de Wit for a more inclusive internationalisation, may be seen as an opportunity, with a shift from quantity to quality.


Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris are established advisers to the education sector. As employer solutions lawyers, we work with education providers and institutions to support with their full people requirements including global mobilityhuman resource consultancy,  immigration & employment legal advice.

We understand the commercial and legal challenges facing employers in the sector, and work to support our clients in meeting their people management and planning needs while reducing legal risk exposure. Contact our education sector specialists today.

Last updated: 2nd January 2020


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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