UK: Universities fear impact of visa and jobs curbs

The UK government's plans to restrict visas and employment rights for non-EU overseas students could have a 'catastrophic' effect on higher education, a panel of university stakeholders has warned.

Speaking at a press conference held by the group in Westminster on Wednesday, Edward Acton, Vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, accused the government of "actively shrinking" the country's capacity to export higher education.

The proposals, which have been put out for consultation until 31 January, include raising the English language competency requirement, stricter limits on non-EU international students' entitlement to work and their dependants' entitlement to work during the period of study, restrictions on graduates staying on to work, and tighter visa application procedures for extending periods of study.

Acton said the proposal to raise the language requirement to B2 on the common European Framework of Reference would cut off the international foundation course pathway used by around half of non-EU foreign students going into university, which is designed to "develop your English, your academic capacity, your acculturation and your understanding of the British approach to knowledge".

The impact would be so serious that the row over fees would pale by comparison, he warned.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, which represents the UK's universities, said international students' fees provide about 9% of the sector income and the proposals were "damaging" and "dangerous".

Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK, a language teaching association with 340 accredited centres in the UK, said international education was a key growth sector for the future of the UK, but the proposals posed a "real threat to that expansion and to the £40 billion (US$64 billion) of foreign earnings which international education can provide for the economy in the future".

They threatened market perception that the UK was welcoming to students, he said, quoting a Foreign Office official's wry observation that "the UK is open for business, but not for foreigners".

He estimated that the B2 language requirement would rule out up to 80% of students entering international foundation courses.

"If you take roughly half of international students out of universities that would be highly damaging. International student fees subsidise home student places, they keep courses and whole departments. In some universities where more than 60% of students are not home students they are vital to the survival of the institutions," he said.

Dominic Scott, Chief Executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), said these were the most radical proposals for a decade, if not a generation and they were not well thought through. The consultation had generated 25,000 responses so far, a sign of "huge opposition and resentment".

A large number of those came from students who were beginning to think that possibly their futures were being undermined or betrayed. These included those who felt they could progress seamlessly from one course to the next, and those who were encouraged to come to the UK because they could stay on for two years of work experience after graduation from a British university.

"Many have invested thousands and thousands of pounds in the expectation, not that students can get a job, but that they can get the work experience which would demonstrate that their degree has real currency in the labour market. Then they'll go home. Students in the main don't want to stay in the UK forever," he said. "But they do want to get a bit of work experience from a good British company and go back to Shanghai or Taiwan or whatever and say, 'look I've got real credibility'."

Scott criticised the proposal to ban dependants of students from working. It was ridiculous to think that a young bright researcher who was planning to do a two-or-four-year PhD would come to the UK either leaving behind their husband or wife or bringing a husband or wife who would be virtually trapped in the home, probably very talented and skilled, but not allowed even to do voluntary work.

"We will, without doubt, lose students. I think we'll lose trust, I think we'll lose income, I think we'll lose reputation and lose business links around the world. It could undermine entirely our research base," he said.

Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, said it would be counterproductive at a time of financial difficulties to deter international students from coming to the UK and would lead to a worsening of the experience for all students, both home and international.

"There are some institutions where international students are more important than others. The London School of Economics is a prime example, with around 70% of its students from an international background. Few would dispute that it is a world-leading institution. It is enhanced because of the international environment it has there and I think it would be an absolute travesty at a time when universities and students are facing unprecedented challenges for an additional, unnecessary and indeed economically counter-productive challenge to be thrown into the mix," he said.