Increased visa fees and ‘rip-off’ crackdown will level down the UK

International students contribute nearly £12 billion a year to the government’s priority areas for levelling up, says James Pitman 

July 23, 2023
An uneven spirit level, symbolising levelling up
Source: iStock

The UK government has often said it is proud of its globally respected universities and thriving international education sector. At a time when global trade and inward investment are vital to economic recovery, higher education is a sector in which the UK is genuinely world leading.

This week, however, the government has not best shown its support. The reason is pure politics. As part of a broader push to fulfil pledges to reduce net migration to the UK, it has announced a spate of policies that in fact jeopardise the country’s position as a world-class international study destination. 

The prime minister’s latest announcement of “significant” increases to visa fees and an already high immigration health surcharge to help fund public sector pay awards amounts to a new tax on international students. This policy, following on the heels of recent restrictions on numbers of dependants, has been reported around the world and seems likely to result in a downturn in international student numbers.

What is less understood is just what this would mean for the very UK communities the government says it wants to help. From less affluent London boroughs to northern constituencies such as Teesside, international students, universities and their global flows of talent are a vital source of economic growth, cross-subsidising local opportunities. Any reduction to the number of international students deciding to study at British institutions will hit these regions hardest. 

The government currently lists 123 UK councils as “priority category 1” – the highest priority under the government’s levelling-up agenda. Data from the Higher Education Policy Institute reveals that the 100,000-plus international students studying in these areas in the 2021-22 academic year contribute £11.7 billion to their local economies. This impressive figure is three times greater than the public funds the government has allocated to all the levelling-up regions within the first and second rounds of funding: £3.8 billion to date. 

The benefits of international education include 30,000 high-quality jobs in local economies. Local residents also benefit financially. Every international student in the Sheffield Central constituency, for example, contributed a net figure of £1,930 per resident in 2021/22, according to Hepi. This influx of money into the South Yorkshire region far exceeds the amount that the government provides. For towns and cities in desperate need of renewal, any policies that interrupt it are tantamount to levelling down.

Other government messages about universities also risk the strength of the UK as an international study destination. Narratives around “poor-quality” courses are not exactly a ringing endorsement of the globally admired quality of UK universities. While the need for regulation in the student interest is understood, language around “rip-off” courses creates a misleading impression of widespread failure instead of the typically excellent teaching and vibrant academic communities, of which the UK should be proud.

If we are to preserve one of the UK’s truly outstanding success stories, which benefits individuals and communities across the world, this negativity must be replaced by confidence and pride. That means pushing back against voices such as the parliamentary group of 25 red wall Tory MPs, “The New Conservatives”, who have called for study visas to be allocated only to the “brightest” international students and who are seeking to reignite the debate on the length of time overseas students are allowed to stay in the country post-graduation. Like others of their suggestions, these measures would be an act of self-harm. 

We simply must not go back to a hostile environment for international students, and that means putting in place the necessary safeguards to avoid them being sucked into an immigration debate where they do not belong.

The home secretary has in the past raised concerns about the UK post-study work offer, although thankfully any moves to cut it have been resisted. Post-study visa options are vital for international students keen to mitigate the costs of study and to enhance their employment prospects with invaluable work experience. And IDP research earlier this year found that 44 per cent of prospective international students would study elsewhere if their first choice of country shortened the duration of its post-study work visa. 

The international education sector in the UK has worked exceptionally hard to secure a reputation as a welcoming and academically rigorous destination for students from all over the world. With a general election on the near horizon and headline-grabbing a temptation to politicians keen to make their mark, the danger is the current government could do irreparable damage to an export sector that was worth £42 billion to the UK in 2021-22 – and to the communities that rely on it. Voices of reason in all parties know this would be disastrous for everyone.

So the time has come to stem the risk at source. As temporary migrants, international students should be removed from the net migration count, as they are in Australia and the US. This sensible change has been called for many times before, but the past week reveals that it is more vital now than ever.

Now is the time for the sector and the government to unanimously send a message that international students are good for UK economies and citizens and are welcome here.

James Pitman is chair of Exporting Education UK and managing director at Study Group.

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Reader's comments (1)

The section of this article contradicts itself as in one section says UK higher education is highly regarded and at the end says 44% of students think another destination if post study work duration is shortened. Then is it education or the London job market taking over jobs from local young graduates determine UK higher education demand. Effectively these are placement centres to UK job market selling future of local youth.