International Students - Issue of the Week - 11th January, 2013

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of UUK, has warned that the inflammatory rhetoric coming from the Home Office risks deterring international students from UK study.

The 1994 Group shares this concern. The following statistic speaks volumes: in 2012, after 6 years of 7% growth in international university applications, the figure slumped to 0.8%.

The benefits of international students

Firstly, it should be said that we understand the Home Office’s concern with “bogus students”; foreign nationals should not be able to bypass visa regulations through dishonesty and deceit. But, the Home Office’s monochromatic rhetoric—almost exclusively negative—mistakenly tars honest and intelligent students with the same brush.

In particular, Rt. Hon. Theresa May, the home secretary, must remember that international students make an essential contribution to the UK economy. Last year, international students paid £2.5bn to universities in tuition fees and added £4.5bn to the wider economy. This is money that sustains both universities and local economies—especially important as universities face direct public sector cuts and domestic consumers belt-tighten.

But, international students offer a lot more besides. They provide employers with a pool of highly talented graduates, add welcome cultural diversity to our campuses, and extend UK global influence. It is for this reason that our universities have invested in meaningful, long-term relationships with overseas institutions. For example, Lancaster University hosts exchange schemes with HEIs in Poland, Brazil, and India, to name a few.

Our recommendations

The seeds of the current problem stem from the student immigration measures enacted by the Home Office in April, 2011. At the reforms’ heart was the closure of the post-study work visa.

Prior to 2011, international students had the right to remain in the UK for up to 2 years post-graduation without restriction. This meant international students could start a career in the UK without worrying about further qualification requirements until their post-study visa expired. Now graduates have to transfer onto a non-student visa within 4 months or face enforced expulsion.

Quite unnecessarily, this shrinks the size of the graduate talent pool and deters the world's best from applying to the UK. And for one thing, it does little to free up jobs. The extra jobs freed up by this legislative change are surely exceeded by the jobs lost in the correlative collapse in international student numbers. (Ursula Kelly estimates that for every 10 non-EU students, 3 full-time equivalent jobs are created in the UK.)

So, 2 years on, the Government should publish a thorough review of the expected and unexpected costs that have been incurred by the closure the post-study working visa.

Alongside this commitment, Rt. Hon. Theresa May must perform a step change in her current rhetoric. Most international students are sincere and hardworking, and the home secretary should not ignore that fact; she must make pains to articulate the value international students add to the UK economy, education system, and culture. In line with the suggestions of other sector bodies, we believe the Government ought to ramp up its international publicity campaign in a drive to attract international students. We hope this would start to reverse the current international perception of the UK Government as unwelcoming and unfriendly.

That said, universities should not rest on their laurels. We should go out into the world ourselves, and make "the case for the UK as a world class destination for international students". Fortunately, Professor Edward Acton, Vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, will be talking on this exact topic at the upcoming Improving International Student Experience Conference.

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