The Home Office must stop reheating ruinous ideas on student immigration

Cutting off a £26 billion UK success story at the knees would be self-inflicted economic vandalism, says Tim Bradshaw

January 30, 2023
A man cutting off the tree branch he is sitting on, illustrating Home Office policy
Source: iStock

The 1993 film Groundhog Day saw weatherman Bill Murray condemned to live the same 24 hours over and over again. Trapped in a moment in time during the middle of winter, his character sees the same people saying the same things every day, making the same choices and mistakes.

Those of us in the UK higher education sector who appreciate the value that international students bring to the country, our universities and the communities they are a part of have had our own Groundhog Day experience recently. No sooner do advocates for the value of boosting education exports win the argument on international student immigration than we are forced to confront reheated proposals from Home Office sources for restricting the graduate route that would amount to an act of self-inflicted economic vandalism.

This is not a criticism of government as a whole. We understand that the Department for Education, the business department and the Treasury have been fighting alongside the sector to make the positive case for the impact of international students on the UK. If you look at the numbers alone it’s easy to see why.

Every international student is estimated to generate £132,000 in economic impact for the UK, and these students also have the highest compliance rates of any visa category, with at least 97.5 per cent leaving the UK on time. Those who do stay after graduation provide vital skills for the NHS, schools, businesses and the UK’s world-leading research and innovation sector.

A single cohort of international students is worth a net £25.9 billion to the UK economy, with benefits spread all over the country. To be clear, this massive contribution is after factoring in the costs associated with any dependants, such as educating children and using public services.

Income from international students is helping universities plug major shortfalls in R&D funding at no cost to the taxpayer and supporting choice for home students by helping ensure more high-quality courses are sustainable to teach. However you choose to cut it, international students are great for the UK. They bring new ideas, help create a diverse learning environment and boost UK soft power.

The public understand this, too. Just 19 per cent of those surveyed by YouGov this month said the government should restrict the number of international students coming to the UK.

Universities recognise the importance of a robust, secure immigration system for the UK and work closely with the government to minimise the potential for fraud and other abuses. But the proposed changes reportedly being advocated by the Home Office, such as cutting the duration of post-study work visas from two years to six months, go well beyond this and would make UK universities less competitive in an increasingly challenging international marketplace.

Russell Group universities are proud of the quality of the educational experience we are able to offer international students. But successful recruitment strategies are built on more than what happens in lecture theatres or seminar rooms. If students don’t have confidence in the stability of the immigration regime underpinning their time in the UK, they will look for alternatives – and our competitors will provide them.

The suggestion from Home Office sources that we split the sector, with some universities able to continue to offer access to the graduate route, is also not the panacea some might think. We would be talking here about major changes to an immigration route that only went live in July 2021. Whether students are considering applying to Russell Group institutions or other fantastic UK universities, this instability will give them pause for thought.

The UK is already more restrictive than other Western anglophone nations in terms of which students can bring dependants and the financial evidence they have to show to secure visas. Tightening rules further would be leaving the door open for countries such as Australia, who are actively seeking ways to enhance student visa offerings, to attract more of the best and brightest international students.

The impact of regular anti-student briefings to UK media are already being seen in key overseas markets and will undermine our ability to attract high-quality students to the UK. And this isn’t just about universities; it will hurt growth and damage public finances.

The UK may have “taken back control” of its immigration system, but we don’t need to use that freedom to cut off a UK export success story at the knees. It’s time to break out of this damaging policy feedback loop and finally leave Groundhog Day behind.

Tim Bradshaw is chief executive of the Russell Group.

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Reader's comments (1)

I agree with the writer as regards the economic and intellectual benefits of overseas students, but I am concerned about the environmental effects of encouraging thousands of flights, often long-haul, several times a year. The travel of international students makes a significant contribution to the carbon footprint of universities. Is there any solution to this?