Could Joe Biden’s election in the US be bad news for UK HE?

The higher education landscape for international students has fundamentally changed. Joe Biden’s election as president makes the United States a more attractive study destination. The countries competing for a share of these bright young minds need to re-examine their offerings to ensure they’re as compelling as possible.

It’s the perfect combination. Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris is the daughter of international students, one of whom is from India, the main source (along with China) of international students for the rest of the world.

She has been an active defender of international students – in July for example, she called on the Trump administration to allow international students who were taking classes online due to the pandemic to remain in the US. This followed guidance from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stating that international students on F-1 and M-1 visas “may not take a full online course load and remain”.

Indeed, anecdotal reports from international students in the US suggest they’re encouraged by the election result. Chiefly, they now believe Optional Practical Training – a hugely influential factor for international students considering higher education destinations and the reason why the UK government has introduced the Graduate Route due to commence in the summer – won't be revoked. Trump's administration constantly threatened to restrict it.

It also appears that foreign students in the US now believe no unexpected ICE restrictions are going to be announced and there’s a good chance that existing ones may be rescinded, like the Trump administration’s proposed rule to limit study in the US to fixed periods of admission rather than ‘duration of status’.

And in addition to these factors, there’s the potential impact on the country’s higher education policies that the president elect’s wife, Dr Jill Biden, will have. Reports suggest the initial impact will chiefly be on the domestic scene, with a particular emphasis on community colleges, but undoubtedly Biden will increase the focus on education during his tenure.

All of this is good news for international education in the US, but does it have to be bad news for competing countries, such as the UK?

The visa piece

In September last year the UK government announced a new ‘Graduate Route’. International students will be able to stay and work, or look for work, in the UK at any skill level for a maximum period of two years. This has proved extremely popular with education agents and students around the world. However, there is room for improvement.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs has highlighted that it appears dependants will not be permitted to remain or join a former student on the Graduate Route. It strongly opposes this. It’s easy to understand why. A potential five-plus year period away from loved ones is a long time. This would be an easy thing to remedy.

The next question is why restrict the programme to only two years? Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) data proves the value of international students who stay and work in the UK – gaining jobs in areas with skills shortages and making significant contributions to the Exchequer.

On that basis, the longer they stay to work, the better, and many in the sector would like to see the two-year Graduate Route increased to a minimum of four years (indeed one of these voices is the prime minister’s brother – former universities minister Jo Johnson).

In addition, the idea of a single study visa to cover all stages of the student journey has obvious attractions for all stakeholders. It hasn’t been done because, in the past, the Home Office wanted students to leave as quickly as possible, so the best way was to have short visas that could only be renewed or changed in a home country, requiring students to depart and therefore (in theory) bring the net migration numbers down.

But a single study visa is sensible for the student (it saves cost and risk) and for the Home Office as the renewals process is expensive for the UK – it requires significant resources in foreign countries.

If a student is issued with a student visa and then complies with that visa and de facto has a track record of progression, then why would they not be a viable student thereafter? It seems obvious: if the UK wants to derive the greatest value from that student, then we shouldn’t be offering them opportunities to go elsewhere at the point when they currently have to change or renew their visas.

What can the government do?

The next area to consider is the student journey. Opening up some components of visa processing to trusted providers as a way to reduce costs and provide a faster process for students would be welcome. For example, we already carry out a variety of checks – credibility, academic qualifications and financial resources – and we believe there is duplication in the system that could be eliminated to save the Home Office valuable resources and make the whole process much faster and smoother for students.

The Home Office could instead divert its expertise towards directly supporting the UK government’s International Education Strategy. We’d hope this would see it become one of the sponsoring departments for said strategy, in addition to the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade.

International/domestic PR

We are fortunate that the current UK government is pro international education. Its ambition to increase education exports to £35 billion (US$46.7 billion) and the number of international higher education students to 600,000 by 2030 is commendable and achievable.

The closer ties with India naturally formed by a chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary with Indian grandparents are welcome (though the US has that advantage in Kamala Harris), but this blossoming relationship should not be a reason to rest on our laurels.

The UK needs to encourage international students with positive examples and a welcoming message from government and employer organisations like the Confederation of British Industry.

More evidence and dissemination of research like the HEPI study mentioned above would build confidence in society that international students staying to work do not take jobs from domestic graduates (they are in skills shortage areas – National Union of Students’ research backs this up, showing UK students believe international students should have exactly the same job rights as domestic students) and that they make a big contribution in so many ways to the UK.

In the short term…

As the government states in its Graduate Route blog, it takes time to develop a new immigration route. Changes to the visa system take time.

Having said that, there are easier, faster wins available. For example, the government could make the current COVID guidance relaxations permanent. It’s also important to recognise that blended learning is here to stay and we see no reason to cease to count online learning towards the hourly quotas required for student visas.

…and moving forward

Clear, attractive policies to encourage international students to study, gain work experience and immigrate are essential to future sector growth in the face of increased competition from the US. A joined-up offering is highly attractive; as is a population which values immigrants.

The Graduate Route is a great start – in-market feedback has been very positive and the UK’s higher education sector is already seeing strong growth in response from regions like South Asia, for example.

However, practical considerations including more flexible term start dates, the packaging of undergraduate and postgraduate courses into a single high value proposition (with a single study visa) and more blended product offerings to tap into a more price-conscious segment interested in greater choice and flexibility all need to be considered.

The same applies to streamlining the student journey and a focus on work and employment if we are to ensure that the UK achieves its International Education Strategy goals.

James Pitman is managing director, UK and Europe, at international education provider Study Group. Study Group partners with universities across the globe to prepare international students for degree-level study.