Does the UK want more or fewer international students?

Just as British Council Education Director Maddalaine Ansell was stressing the importance of showing that the United Kingdom “values our international students” and wants to “make their journey as easy as possible” at the first Going Global Asia Pacific conference in Singapore, the UK government was struggling to hold a common line over whether it wants more or fewer foreign students studying at British universities.

Higher education leaders in the United Kingdom must have felt a sense of déjà vu when they saw newspaper headlines warning of a ‘Student visa crackdown’ and ‘Foreign students face ban from universities’ after a government briefing to political correspondents sought to clarify how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak intended to respond to record levels of migration.

This is because arguments from some government ministers, including Home Secretary Suella Braverman, had echoes of previous cabinet infighting when Theresa May was the Conservative Party prime minister in 2017.

Back then, May, who was home secretary before becoming prime minister after the Brexit referendum, pledged to toughen visa requirements for international students as part of efforts to “bear down on immigration from outside the European Union”.

As University World News reported at the time, the Conservative general election manifesto that year pledged to reduce net immigration from 273,000 per year to “tens of thousands” and rejected pleas from university leaders to remove overseas students from the immigration statistics.

Vice-chancellors argued that most international students returned home after completing their studies and shouldn’t be included in the immigration data.

Fast forward five years and they are making the same case today together with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students whose co-chair Paul Blomfield MP claimed: “Nobody’s concerned about international students in the debate on net headline migration numbers.”

Net migration hits record level

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show net migration at a record 504,000, with immigration to the UK reaching an estimated 1.1 million in the year to June 2022 and around 560,000 people emigrating from the UK.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “These unusually high levels of net migration result from a unique set of circumstances following the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. We cannot assume they represent a ‘new normal’, and it would be rash to take major policy decisions based only on these numbers.

“Most non-EU citizens on work and study visas eventually leave the UK, but not for two to three years. As a result, the UK may well see artificially high estimates of net migration over the next couple of years, before emigration catches up.”

She said the UK issued 465,000 sponsored study visas to non-EU citizens in the year ending June 2022, but, based on past trends, between 80% and 90% of those people would be expected to leave the UK over the coming decade.

However, that hasn’t stopped various members of the governing Conservative Party clashing over whether the UK should continue growing its international student population after the country hit its 2030 target of recruiting 600,000 nearly a decade early, due in part to major study abroad rivals, such as Australia and New Zealand, shutting their borders to foreign students at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the latest net migration figures, Braverman was warming up for a fight over soaring international student numbers which pushed up immigration totals, as did the surge of arrivals fleeing the war in Ukraine and China’s clampdown in Britain’s former colony of Hong Kong.

Braverman wants fewer foreign students

In remarks widely reported, Braverman told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in October that the number of foreign students coming to the UK should be cut in a bid to reduce immigration, adding for good measure: “We have to look at some of the courses that people are doing in this country, some of the institutions; they are not always very good quality.”

Higher education leaders were quick to point out that a clampdown on growing international student numbers flew in the face of the government’s own international education strategy which aimed to boost “the value of education exports to £35 billion [US$43 billion] per year by 2030”.

Analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in conjunction with Universities UK showed the 2018-19 cohort of international students delivered “a net economic benefit of £25.9 billion [US$32 billion] to the UK, with every region and parliamentary constituency benefitting to the tune of an average of £390 per person because of international students”.

Experts ready to take on home secretary

A number of higher education experts are ready to take on Braverman and her fellow travellers, including HEPI’s Director Nick Hillman who argued in an opinion piece for Times Higher Education that the UK should now aim for one million international students.

Three previous Conservative higher education ministers over the past decade, Jo Johnson, Chris Skidmore and David Willetts, have also lined up to condemn any “mindless crackdown on overseas students”, with Johnson telling The Observer newspaper: “Other countries look with envy at the UK’s appeal to global talent.”

To find out what is going on in government, University World News asked the Home Office to confirm or deny whether the home secretary wanted a crackdown on international students.

A Home Office spokesperson referred us to the Department for Education, which confirmed that Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan had made a parliamentary reply to a question from Scottish National Party MP Carol Monaghan saying: “We have a world-class education system and we will attract the brightest students from around the world. That is good for our universities and delivers growth at home.

“We were proud to meet our international student ambition earlier this year to attract 600,000 international students per year by 2030. Today that is worth £29.5 billion and we are now focused on bringing in £35 billion from our education exports.”

The Department for Education also sent University World News a ‘readout’ of the Number 10 lobby briefing which led to the headlines about student visa clampdowns “to help clarify the prime minister’s stance”.

This said the latest immigration statistics “reflect the ongoing effects of the pandemic which significantly impacted visa applications while students delayed travel” and it is “not surprising” that there is an increase in visa applications this year.

The briefing added that the “points-based [immigration] system is designed to flex according to the UK’s needs, including attracting top-class talent from across the world in order to contribute to the UK’s excellent academic reputation, helping keep our universities competitive on the world stage”.

Prime minister targets student dependants

However, it also said: “The PM is fully committed to getting migration down” and “all options to ensure that the immigration system is delivering for the British people” would be considered, including “looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees”.

Government insiders suggest the prime minister and home secretary are more concerned about the rising number of dependants international students bring with them while they study in the UK and less worried about rising numbers of foreign students choosing to study at British universities.

But Dr Janet Ilieva, director of Education Insight and an expert on UK international education strategy, told University World News: “The trouble is that if dependants can’t accompany their parents, this will be a significant disadvantage to the UK.

“Many sponsored students have an allowance for their family members, and if dependants are not allowed in the UK, the scholars may choose another country to pursue their PhD studies.”

Ilieva also pointed out that the one-year duration of UK masters degrees, popular with students from India, which has overtaken China as the number one source of international students to the UK, “means universities have to replenish their masters students annually which drives up student visa applications”.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Cutting international student numbers would run directly counter to the government’s strategy to rebuild the economy – given the huge financial contribution they make to every part of the country.

“They sustain jobs in towns and cities up and down the country. They also bring enormous benefits to university campuses. The financial contribution they make has been essential, given the long-term decline in funding for teaching UK undergraduate students.”

Mixed messages are an ‘own goal’

Ruth Arnold, senior advisor with Study Group and an expert in global higher education, told University World News: “The government’s mixed messages on international students were an own goal”, adding that she backed calls by HEPI to make the UK international students’ visa policy government-wide and not just a matter for the Home Office.

“Overseas students contribute to the priorities of departments as varied as business, international trade, the foreign office and the treasury,” she pointed out.

Susan Fang, an international higher education consultant helping UK universities recruit students from the China and South Asia market, told University World News: “My Australian agency peers are gleefully looking forward to receiving more students from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. One even suggested to me to encourage UK onshore international students to seek a second degree in Australia.”

She said there was still time for the UK government to clarify their policy of encouraging talented students from around the world to help the country’s economic recovery by attracting the skills the country desperately needs and improving the post-graduation work offer.

Mike Winter, director of international affairs at the University of London, posted on LinkedIn: “It’s a fast rewind to the Home Office of Theresa May, when there was dysfunction across Whitehall on international students. Sadly, despite the achievement of the cross-departmental International Education Strategy, we seem to be sliding back to departments pulling in opposite directions.”

International higher education strategy consultant Dr Vicky Lewis told University World News: “The impact of this on individual students’ decisions could be significant and that would, of course, have a knock-on effect for UK universities and the viability of certain courses.”

Others University World News contacted said they hoped the storm would soon blow over and suggested some Conservative ministers were simply playing the tune they thought the party faithful would like to hear with little intention of watering down the UK’s strategy of attracting more international students.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.