International students enrich cities like Coventry – but that could change

Coventry Cathedral next to a museum and university building. Image: Herry Lawford/Creative Commons.

More than 440,000 students from outside the UK come to study at British universities every year, and they have a transformative impact on both the places where they study, and the places they live. 

As new research published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan shows, the gross benefits of the UK hosting international students stands at £22.6bn – dwarfing the costs of hosting them by 10:1. This works out as £310 per every UK resident.

Universities UK recently calculated that international students contribute £25.6bn to the UK economy per year – with over £5bn of this being spent on off-campus goods and services. Their spending is such that they support over 200,000 jobs in the UK, in many of the cities where this work is absolutely critical to the local economy.

It is often thought that London is the main beneficiary of international students, but the benefits of international students are being felt across the UK.

Coventry is a particularly good example of this.


A city with a proud history, the number of international students there has been steadily increasing in recent years, with the number of international students from outside of the EU increasing by over 2,000 since 2010, and 7,900 non-EU international students enrolling in courses in 2016.

As the editor of the Coventry Telegraph Keith Perry put it to readers: “Money follows money and the student pound can entice the investors and developers, which brings more of us back to our city centre rather than heading out to Solihull.

“Before you know it, we might even be able to persuade John Lewis, the store you tell us you want, to pitch up in Coventry.”

The array of businesses in Coventry which benefit from international students is something which is replicated throughout the country. One local taxi firm described the increasing number of international students in the city as “an absolute godsend”, while a restaurant owner described international students as “absolutely crucial” to the success of their business. 

Across university towns, the impact that international students have on the local economy is widely felt. Be it taxi companies, restaurants, or bars and nightclubs, international students leave a lasting impression on the cities in which they study.

Yet, for all the good that international students bring to UK cities, the number choosing to study at British universities is stalling. At the same time, our global competitors, Canada and Australia, are surging ahead.

The inclusion of students in the government’s net migration target, the difficulties in gaining a student visa as well as the barriers in being able to work after graduating, all account for why this lucrative market of international students is looking elsewhere. The decisions taken by this government in recent years have been interpreted abroad to mean: international students are not welcome in the UK.

While the UK is pulling up the drawbridge, its competitors have been rolling out the red carpet to this market to such an extent that the global higher education market has grown by 34 per cent since 2010. This is a higher education party to which the UK has been invited, but is declining to attend.

It is vital that cities across the UK trumpet the benefits that international students bring to them. Too often, people think of the benefits of international students as being merely in the classroom, whereas the reality is that their benefits are felt throughout a city.

It is true that the UK needs a tough visa regime and strong immigration policy, but polling has consistently shown that the UK public clearly differentiate between international students and long-term migrants. Three quarters of the public do not see students as migrants.

Cities all over the UK – and Coventry is just one example – are crying out for more international students and it is vital that government acts to create a more encouraging visa regime for international students, which promotes UK higher education for what it is: one of our best and most lucrative exports to the world.

Sarah Williamson is a spokeswoman for Destination for Education, a campaign to recruit international students to the UK.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.