Battle royale to prevent curbs on international students

Politicians are squaring up for a battle royale over any attempts to drive away overseas students as the British government struggles to find a way to live up to a promise to cut migration – and international higher education experts stand ready to join the fray.

Although many in the United Kingdom’s international higher education sector would rather focus on the economic and ‘soft power’ benefits of the surge in the number of overseas students enrolling at British universities, politicians and those leading the global recruitment drive are determined to fight any Home Office attempt to drive away international students as part of a government push to cut migration.

Gillian Keegan, the secretary of state for education, used a front page interview with the Financial Times on 11 February 2023, to step up the battle by reassuring international students that they are welcome in the UK and declaring her opposition to reported moves from within parts of the Conservative government to make Britain less attractive to globally mobile students.

‘Backdoor immigration route’ claim

Among measures being mooted by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, according to the Conservative-leaning Daily Mail, is a clampdown on foreign students taking short courses at '“less respectable universities”, which the newspaper quoted a Home Office source as calling “a backdoor immigration route”.

The Home Office was also reported to be pressing for a cut in the length of time overseas students can stay in the UK to look for a job after graduating, from two years to six months.

Other measures being considered by the Home Office include “restricting visa applications only to those who have completed [their studies] in high demand subject areas, such as engineering”, reported the Daily Mail.

‘Highly valuable export success’

Keegan used her interview with the Financial Times to stress that British universities were a highly valuable export success. She said that she “wanted to build on the UK’s booming export market in university education, with plans to expand export revenues from about £26 billion [US$31 billion] to £35 billion [US$42 billion] by 2030. It’s a sector we should be very proud of.”

However, not everyone in government is celebrating the UK’s success in hitting its international higher education target of attracting 600,000 international students eight years ahead of schedule, as University World News has reported, particularly after the latest figures for overseas students soared again last year to reach 680,000.

The rise in overseas students helped to tilt net migration to 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 immigrating from the UK.

Keegan and Braverman ‘discuss options’

The Financial Times reported that Keegan and Braverman met last week to discuss options, including “reviewing the automatic qualification of international students for a two-year work visa [after graduation] as well as the ability of students on ‘low value’ courses to bring dependants to Britain”.

Keegan was also reported to be willing to “help the Home Office root out any abuse of the system, noting the Tory pledge to cut migration”.

The Home Office has relied mainly on briefings to the press to get its views across since Home Secretary Braverman was reappointed to her post by Sunak after being sacked by former prime minister Liz Truss in the dying days of her short-lived Conservative administration.

However, observers point to comments made by the spokesman for Prime Minister Sunak towards the end of last year, which University World News reported on 2 December 2022, which 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”.

The Treasury is said to be opposed to any reforms that would damage the appeal of UK universities to international students, who pay much higher tuition fees than home students and subsidise about a quarter of the cost of research undertaken by British universities.

Risk to UK’s ‘soft power’, say Lords

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also appears alarmed at any threat to the international standing of UK universities. A parliamentary debate in the House of Lords on 9 February 2023 heard concerns from a number of members that Britain’s ‘soft power’ was at risk.

Lord Blunkett, former education and employment secretary as well as serving as home secretary in Tony Blair’s Labour government, asked Lord Ahmad, representing the government, whether he could “explain the constant briefings from Suella Braverman and [International Trade Secretary] Kemi Badenoch that we do not want higher education international students to come to the United Kingdom?”

Cross-bench member Lord Bilimoria, chancellor of Birmingham University, founder of Cobra Beer and former president of the Confederation of British Industry, added his voice to concerns, saying that, together with the Royal Family, BBC and Premier League football, “our universities” are “some of the strongest elements of soft power”.

He asked the minister for reassurance that, “having hit the 600,000 target for international students, there will be no reduction”, and added: “In fact, we should increase it to one million.”

Why include students in migration figures?

He also urged that the two-year post-graduation work visa be retained and asked: “Why does the government continue to include international students in net migration figures? They should be excluded, as our competitor countries do.”

Lord Ahmad, a minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, replied that he was also the minister for South Asia and was “directly involved in some of the important work we are doing to strengthen our partnership with India, for example, as well as other South Asian countries, and education is a key component of that”.

He went on to offer assurance “that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is very proud of our educational offer to international students and equally proud of the programmes we run, such as the Chevening Scholarships and the Commonwealth Scholarships”.

He said: “I stand by the fact that the UK has been, continues to be and should remain a key place for any student wishing to come to the UK, because our educational institutions, with which many noble Lords are involved, are second to none.”

Replying directly to Bilimoria’s points, Lord Ahmad added: “Of course, it is not within the remit of the department that I speak for, but I will certainly relay the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House to colleagues in the Home Office.

“Again, I accept the principle he relates: if we have a world-class offer for students, from which we, they and the world gain, we should ensure that it is available in the maximum way it can be, while accepting the domestic challenges we face.”

International education is a political football

Ian Crichton, the recently appointed chief executive of international education provider Study Group, which works in partnership with leading universities in the UK and around the world, told University World News: “The UK government needs to stop using international education as a political football. Education is not about immigration, it is about global engagement.”

He went on to say: “If the UK is serious about having a meaningful role in the 21st century and beyond, we need to ensure that we return to being seen as sensible, safe and strong, not to mention willing participants in a global community.”

Crichton welcomed “the important intervention this week of the secretary of state for education in support of international students”, saying: “She’s right, we should be growing this great asset, but sending mixed messages on welcome or post-study work takes away from our proposition.

“I hope she will have the full backing of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology who rely on international student talent and fees far more than many like to admit.

“More than anything I hope that our government will stop arguing amongst itself over the economic merits of allowing students in and instead look outside our borders at the potential we have to be a force for good in the global new world order.”

Imperative to maintain the Graduate Route

Anne-Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, agreed and told University World News: “It’s imperative to maintain the Graduate Route visa in its current form to ensure the UK remains competitive.”

Ruth Arnold, a champion of the UK’s #WeAreInternational campaign supporting international students, told University World News it should not be forgotten that overseas students make a considerable investment in coming to the UK to study.

Quoting figures from a report by the Royal Society, she also highlighted the significant costs for postgraduate and PhD students who are permitted to bring dependants.

“Far from being a drain on the public purse, the price to students of bringing a family of four is between £16,000 and £21,000 when visas, health charges to use the NHS [National Health Service] and other immigration costs are included, making the UK one of the most expensive countries to be a researcher across the major science nations. I bet most people don’t know that,” she said.

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