THE BATTLE OVER INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS

Neil Carmichael

Almost the last report by the Education Select Committee when this author was still chair dealt with the implications of Brexit for the higher education sector. Of the many issues covered by the report, the future status of international students and academics loomed large and still does.

Universities remain concerned about the ongoing impact Brexit is having on student applications from the European Union and the sense of insecurity being experienced by EU nationals working in the UK. The Russell Group, Universities UK and MillionPlus are all pointing out the risks to the strong education export market, accounting for some £4.3billion in direct contributions to the UK economy from the higher education sector alone.

The Education Select Committee made several recommendations, including that the Government should remove students from the net migration target and, instead, charge the fledgling Office for Students with the task of accounting for international student numbers. It also recommended the introduction of a new visa for all highly-skilled academics, so the best people could be attracted to the UK and international collaboration encouraged. Action on these fronts remains urgent.

Another set of difficulties also characterise this debate. The restrictions on post-study work opportunities is having a damaging impact on international students, as illustrated by the 53% decline of Indian student applications since 2010/11. Satisfying Tier 2 requirements is possible, but a post-study work visa would provide more flexibility and make the UK a more attractive destination for overseas students. This point has been recently amplified by Wild Search in “Education: The Greatest British Export”.

It is not just a question of post-study work opportunities but, for many students taking courses where practical work experience is required for final qualification, immigration restrictions can have a serious impact. This is causing several governments to signal disproval of the UK’s attitude at a time when free trade agreements with the same are being countenanced. It is also the direct opposite to the attitude now adopted by other countries, notably Canada and Australia, as they seek to improve their offer to international students.

The visa application system, itself, is subject to criticism for being too bureaucratic, inconsistent and time consuming. The judgements of Entry Clearance Officers are, intentionally, in isolation to the concerned institutions but the consequences for the latter can be destabilising and, potentially, damaging in terms of reputation and the possible loss of Tier 4 licences.

These issues are provoking fierce party-political debate and will remain salient until properly resolved but, as in all contested policy areas, there are many opportunities for stakeholders to promote their case and influence final outcomes. The value of education exports to the UK economy is hugely significant so, coupled to the associated reputational risks, increased campaigning on this front can be expected.

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