The ins and outs of student immigration

An industry with export earnings of over £5bn per year – and predictions that it will be one of our biggest exports in 20 years’ time – you presume, would be one any Government would strive to protect. But the opportunities for the UK’s university sector to achieve this growth will be severely hampered if the government presses ahead with its proposed reform of the student immigration system.

Every year around 150,000 international students enter the UK’s universities. They come from over 190 countries, bringing with them global intellectual capital, spending power, and economic and cultural benefits. When they leave the UK (as over 98 per cent of them do), they become global ambassadors for the UK’s culture and values, creating an international network of UK alumni which is a powerful tool in extending our reach and influence abroad.

In other words, international students are foot-soldiers in the global war of ideas. And the UK must compete effectively if it is to remain a significant economic power in the twenty first century.

The coalition government is rightly concerned about economic growth – the more so given the worrying news about the performance of the economy in the final quarter of 2010. Any future growth plan must place the university sector squarely at its heart, driving skills growth and knowledge creation. This is now a global enterprise, which the government is in danger of choking with its proposals.

The proposals put forward by the Home Office on reform of Tier 4 of the points-based system (the student visa route) are flawed and dangerous in a number of respects.

First, there is a strong policy drive outlined in the consultation to restrict access for international students at institutions offering provision below university level. However, this fails to appreciate the complex supply chain through which top-flight students from abroad arrive at the UK’s universities. Many universities operate pathway programmes for their international students with a range of providers. It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of all international students arrive through this means. The government proposes to crack down on provision through these routes. This would not only jeopardise the viability of large swathes of the education sector as a whole – with some estimates of the lost income being put at around £1 billion per year – but would also impact significantly on the legitimate recruitment activities of universities.

Second, the proposal to increase the English language requirement for awarding a student visa would also have a substantial negative impact on the numbers of students able to progress through the education system and enter university.

Third, the government proposes to close off the Tier 1 Post Study Work route, through which international students can apply to remain in the UK after their student visa has expired to gain work experience. This would have a significant detrimental impact on the international attractiveness and competitiveness of the UK as a destination for the world’s top students, and represents a very important part of the UK’s global offer.

Finally, the policy proposals are based on flawed data which do not accurately represent the true picture of net migration in relation to students. Specifically, the International Passenger Survey, on which much of the policy data are based, was not designed for this purpose, and underestimates the outflow of students from the UK. The government could very easily end up managing the statistics in this area, without having an impact on its overall policy goals.

All UK universities support the Government’s attempts to minimise fraudulent use of the student route. Abuse of student visas within the university system is low. More must be done, however, to weed out abuse and limit the number of education providers who can be sponsors. But using a sledgehammer to crack this nut is not the answer.

The government wants to reduce the number of economic migrants in the UK, and has a political and public mandate to do so. But students are not economic migrants. They are net contributors to the economy, make very minimal demands on public services, do not crowd out the job market, and almost invariably return home once their studies are completed. The impact of student immigration on net migration – which is the real policy target – is vanishingly small.

Universities are already dealing with the most significant changes to their funding streams for decades, following the government’s plans to withdraw the block grant for teaching, and instead channel public funding through variable fees ranging between £6K and £9K. Within a number of universities, fee income from international students accounts for more than 20 per cent of their total income, and this is rising. To jeopardise this income stream while universities effect the transition to the new domestic funding system may render large parts of the sector non-viable. If this happens, it will take generations to recover.

But if these proposals come into effect, then we all lose out. International students bring economic, academic, cultural, and political benefits to the UK. As our international competitors and emerging economies move to make the free flow of students around the world easier, we should not now take measures which take us in the opposite direction

By Nicola Dandridge, The Independent Blogs

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