The case for international students

Student immigration is once again in the press, with the Tories pledging to reduce net immigration from the low hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands by 2015. Emigration is not something the government can do very much about and the same goes for the entry of EU citizens, so the buck has to fall with reducing the non-EU immigration number. Non-EU immigration falls into three broad categories of work-related migration, family migration and foreign students. This pledge also comes at a time when, it was announced yesterday, that there has been a statistically significant increase in net migration into the UK in the year up to March from 175,000 to 243,000, with EU citizens accounting for two-thirds of the increase.

Although there is no actual cap on international students, the government include them in the overall net migration target because they make up such a significant proportion of the numbers coming in and staying on.

However, there have been more and more calls from public figures to remove student numbers from net migration figures (indeed, if net migration is used as a benchmark, and as many leave as come originally, then migration figures will stay at zero), as they are increasingly seen as a benefit rather than a strain on the government or economy.

A survey released by Universities UK and think-tank British Future show that the British public do not see international students as “immigrants” and are opposed to reducing the number coming here, even if this would make it harder to reduce immigration numbers. They agree, instead with the views of Nick Clegg, that international students should be removed from net migration targets, and we should instead be supporting universities to attract more international students. Only a fifth (22%) of those interviewed believed that international students were "immigrants" at all, instead thinking they bring in money to the local economy, and 75% were in favour of allowing international students to stay on and work after they finish their degree. Those surveyed noted that thought that the Tories' current policy failed to address public concerns about immigration and international students were not part of this debate.

Another point to make is that universities rely on international students, with many making up a high percentage of their student population, for example Manchester (30%), UCL (39%), Edinburgh (35%), University of the Arts (36%), Imperial (44%), LSE (67%), Cambridge (33%) and City University (35%).

In 2012-13, there were 425,265 international students at UK universities from over 100 different countries and in 2011-2012 they brought in over and in £4b in fees and accommodation, approximately £5b in off-campus expenditure and generated more than 135,000 jobs (which is approximately 18% of the Higher Education sector). At the same time, as Tory grandee Michael Heseltine noted on the BBC's Today programme, we offer a world-class and prestigious education that international students want and when they leave they play an ambassadorial role in taking their educational experience with them. The financial stability that international students bring helps us maintain our standards of excellence, and in turn our world-leading status.

However, it is becoming tougher and tougher for universities to recruit international students. Universities now have to spend approximately £67m a year just on visa compliance activities to ensure they don’t lose their Highly Trusted Sponsor status, while the rules associated with this have just been made more difficult. Currently, educational institutions cannot enjoy Highly Trusted Sponsor status if 20% of more of the individuals they have offered places to are refused visas. But that figure will be cut to 10% in November. It is clear that the obstacles are only getting higher - visas can be refused on the grounds that a student only has the “correct funds” in their bank account for 27 days as opposed to 28 days, or if fluctuations in the exchange rate cause these funds to dip temporarily below the required minimum.

And for those students who do manage to navigate the visa minefield the government has also increased their financial and language requirements, as well as increasing the restrictions on certain rights to work or bring dependent relatives.

If, finally, a international student does attend a UK university, it is being made clear that this country wants them to leave as soon as they have graduated. The post-study work visa which allowed graduates two years to find employment was abolished in April 2012. Instead, graduates have to find a sponsoring employer and earn a minimum of £20,5000 to be able to stay on, even if they are working in an in-demand occupation, such as engineering.

Last year, for the first time in 30 years, there was a decline in the number of international students coming to the UK, specifically 435,005 in 2011 compared to 431,905 in 2012. And for some countries, that decline is startling. For example, 20,000 students came from India in 2012 compared to 33,000 in 2010.

And there is evidence that this decline in international student recruitment is directly related to the changes in immigration rules in this country, to the inclusion of student numbers in the net migration targets and the perception of an unwelcoming and obstructive attitude to those wishing to come to the UK to study.

While there has been a sharp increase in the global demand for higher education, the UK has seen evidence in recent years of a slowdown in international enrolments. Although the UK remains one of the most attractive destinations in the world for international students, it is our competitor countries that are seeing large rises in international student numbers.

With international students being caught up in efforts to bear down on immigration, there is a perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome students. Both Australia and the US have suffered the sort of downturn in international student numbers that is emerging in the UK and have had to reverse the associated immigration policies accordingly.

To keep our position as a world-leading education hub, we need to address this image problem immediately. However, the government, or more specifically the Home Office, does not appear to want to listen. Every single one of the recommendations from the House of Lords Select Committee report of the impact of immigration policies on international student science recruitment were rejected in July.

If this trend continues, it looks as though Britain will suffer the downturn of Australia and the US and our children's education will feel the consequences.

Image Credit: Tom Page, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.