International students and the UK immigration debate

Universities UK (UUK) published their report on international student migration yesterday. Drawing on their nationally representative poll of 2,111 people, together with six workshops held in York, Bristol and Nottingham, UUK outline the key areas of debate. They turn to the public for their views on international student migration to the UK which highlights a number of buzzworthy findings:

  • 59 per cent of the public says the government should not reduce international student numbers, even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall. Only 22 per cent take the opposing view.
  • 66 per cent of Conservative voters are opposed to reducing student numbers.
  • 60 per cent of people think that international students bring money into their local economy. Only 12 per cent think they take money out.
  • 61 per cent agree that Britain’s universities would have less funding to invest in top-quality facilities and teaching without the higher fees paid by international students. Only 7 per cent disagree.
  • 75 per cent think that international students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating from British universities, using their skills for the benefit of our economy, for at least a period of time.
  • Only 22 per cent of the public thinks that international students should count as migrants. Most people do not understand why they would be counted towards the government’s immigration targets.

Unfortunately UUK’s poll did not ask respondents for their attitudes to immigration more generally, but it’s clear that these responses reveal a disposition towards international students that we do not see in general surveys on immigration.

The UUK report frames the UK as a higher education giant that is slowly (but surely) shrinking in relation to global competitors such as the US, and increasingly, European nations. It suggests that migration policy is to blame. The rhetoric around international student migration is discouraging students from studying here, and this is damaging the UK’s reputation as being open for business.

The report makes four headline recommendations:

  1. The government should remove international students from its net migration targets.
  2. The government should launch an international student growth strategy, backed by investment, to promote British universities overseas, build new international partnerships and attract more international students to Britain.
  3. The government should make a renewed effort – through its words, actions and policies – to communicate a consistent message that Britain welcomes international students.
  4. The government should enhance opportunities for qualified international graduates to stay in the UK to work and contribute to the economy.

These recommendations are a step in the right direction in an increasingly desperate battle to shift migration policy from its current state of lock down. The UK public acknowledges the contribution that international students make to the UK’s economic and social life, and this needs to be reflected in policy.

There are, however, fundamental issues with the recommendations which place them firmly in the ‘aspirational’ not currently realisable camp.

Firstly, the government will be hard pressed to remove international students from the migration targets, as this would be viewed as a major fudging of the statistics – even if their current inclusion makes the Coalition government’s migration targets of 10,000s (rather than the 100,000s that we see currently) hard to achieve.

Secondly, many UK universities are already expanding outside of the UK and EU. As Altbach and Knight suggested in 2007, "…initiatives such as branch campuses, cross-border collaborative arrangements, programs for international students, establishing English-medium programs and degrees, and others have been put into place as part of internationalisation." What part (if any) could or should the government play in this area?

Thirdly, how should government go about welcoming students when simultaneously the UK Border Agency (UKBA) is coming down like a tonne of bricks on students who over stay, or don’t have the correct papers at the airport? Between the UK Border Agency and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) (and BIS, the department for Business, Innovation and Skills) a war of rhetoric is being played out with schizophrenic consequences for policy.

And this goes beyond international students - there are other mixed signals in UK migration policy. Take the Entrepreneur visa for example. This is aimed at migrants who want come to the UK and set up or run a business.

They have to bring in significant capital to the UK (£200,000 of their own, or £50,000 if provided by a devolved government department or government approved seed investment fund) and invest it over their three years here. They have to be highly skilled, with postgraduate qualifications and previous business experience, and they also have to hire two UK nationals to work for them if they wish to stay.

These are onerous requirements. In 2010 David Cameron stated that the UK would ‘put out the red carpet’ to overseas entrepreneurs. What has happened since? Stringent business validation checks have been implemented and as a result rejection rates for the visa have sky rocketed, up to 75% in some quarters.

And this links to the final recommendation. In 2012 the Post Study Work (PSW) visa was abolished. This was arguably the most damaging migration policy change in recent history for the UK’s competitiveness in the global war for talent.

Government has put up a banner announcing that students are welcomed with open arms, they are allowed to stay for the duration of their study, and the government sends them packing (probably to the US where migration policy works alongside skills and education policy - encouraging the retention of valuable talent). The options that are left for international students if they wish to stay in the UK, including the Entrepreneur and Graduate Entrepreneur visas, are limited and expensive.

Given the existence of skills shortages in critical areas of the labour market, there is no doubt that the government should enhance opportunities for well-qualified international graduates to stay in the UK – this is a solid aspiration. But how should they do it? We witnessed a semi U-turn on the PSW visa three months after its abolition, where Theresa May announced that PhD students nearing the end of their studies can apply to stay in the UK for one year under the Doctorate Extension Scheme. But this is no way near enough.

UUK’s report is a timely reminder of these key issues. It provides compelling evidence that people in the UK see international students as enriching the UK. But if these messages do not translate into clear policy change the perception will remain that the UK is actually closed for business.

Migration policy needs to change or this country will become a rapidly less popular place to study and work for international students.


George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

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