2023: Hopes and fears for UK international education

At the start of a new year, it is always good to take stock, but perhaps even better to look forward. Predictions may be wrong, but making them is a valuable exercise nonetheless.

So here are Asia Careers Group’s ‘fears and hopes’ for 2023. When it comes to fears, we hope they remain unrealised, and with regards to hopes, one can only ‘lead a horse to water’.

The first fear is that the United Kingdom government ceases to issue dependant visas for all international postgraduate students. We know this is one of the actions at the top of Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s ‘To do list’. This is despite CEO of Universities UK Vivienne Stern’s spirited evidence recently to the science and technology select committee.

Perhaps postgraduate research students will be spared, but there are no guarantees. Let’s just hope the experts speaking on their behalf are successful in swaying a hell-bent home secretary.

It’s worth noting that it is not just the home secretary questioning the number of dependant visas issued to postgraduate students. King’s College London Professor Brian Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that restricting the number of family members students can bring to the UK is “certainly worth looking into”.

Caps on international student numbers

The second fear is that caps on international students come to fruition.

It is well known that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is considering a crackdown on international students and restricting admissions to top universities. Downing Street said as much following the news that net migration to the UK had climbed to a record 504,000 in a single year.

Sunak’s official spokesperson said in November that the prime minister was “fully committed” to bringing overall immigration levels down and blamed “unprecedented and unique circumstances” for the record high. “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees.”

We know that the home secretary has previously complained about foreign students “bringing in family members who can piggyback on to their student visa” and “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.

The main problem with the government’s plan is how it will define ‘inadequate institutions’ and ‘low quality degrees’.

The obvious choice is using published university rankings. This is ironic as, to date, no university ranking actually includes a measure of international graduate outcomes. Moreover HESA, the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, has ceased actively collecting non-European Union graduate outcomes data.

Many from within and outside UK higher education would say the breadth of the UK’s higher education sector is to be commended and not condemned.

As highlighted by former education secretary Justine Greening, the very universities the government is considering imposing caps on, which would bring almost certain financial ruin, are the institutions that make the largest commitment to widening participation and are central to the government’s levelling-up agenda.

If the government decides to use such arbitrary, unsatisfactory measures as a university ranking to decide adequacy, the only thing standing in their way would be for significant numbers of UK universities to boycott all published university rankings.

However it pans out, every day the uncertainty remains it does the UK no favours when it comes to recruiting international students.

Worrying headlines are already circulating in the Indian press, now the UK’s largest international student market.

And our hopes…

The first hope is that universities, local councils and the private sector turn their attention to affordable student housing for all students. While the UK’s international student population continues to accelerate, the development of student housing has slowed.

Cushman and Wakefield report that 2021-22 saw the delivery of 24,612 new beds – only 677 higher than that in 2020-21, as highlighted by Helen Packer in The PIE News.

She writes: “Analysts predict that growth will continue to stagnate given rising inflation, escalating building costs and land availability, among other factors. Incoming legislation that will give tenants more rights is also increasingly turning private landlords off renting to the seemingly less-reliable student market.

“As a result, students face increased stress and costs. The average annual private sector rent outside London is £7,055 [US$8,600] and private rents have risen by 19% since 2016-17. In some cases, students are asked to pay six or 12 months’ rent up front.”

Recent headlines on student housing shortages in some of the UK’s most student-centric cities highlight a rise in university dropouts and say that homelessness is becoming ‘inevitable’ as UK student housing approaches ‘crisis point’ [The Independent], while The Guardian talks of charity warnings of UK student housing reaching a ‘crisis point’ as bad as the 1970s.

Such shortages not only deprive students of a first-class student experience, they also wrongly focus negative publicity on international students studying in the UK. It is worth reiterating that international students are worth almost £30 billion to the UK economy and are the single most important revenue stream when keeping our universities in the black.

Moving beyond a post-study work focus

The final hope is that the UK sector pivots from an unrelenting focus on post-study work to supporting international students to transition to successful early careers back in their home countries.

In truth their hand may be forced by an anti-immigration government and an opposition reluctant to oppose anti-immigration policy, in order to win the next election.

It would be advantageous for all UK higher education institutions, including the Russell Group, to get their houses in order and collect international graduate outcomes data for non-EU students returning to their home countries.

This data would not only act as some insurance against the government’s spurious claims about ‘inadequate institutions’ and ‘low quality degrees’, it would also provide an excellent illustration of the UK’s soft power base in some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

If caps on international students are introduced, the reputation of all UK universities will be impacted, not just those in the middle and at the bottom of university rankings. If one university is perceived to be at risk regarding their international licence, what will stop future government caps on other universities?

There has never been a better time for universities to band together and create a credible evidence base for their global impact, something which could be critical for their collective futures.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.