The newly appointed immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, has just inherited one of the most important briefs in government. As well as keeping the country’s borders safe and secure, she will be responsible for making sure that those with the skills, talent and genuine interest in benefitting our country are given a smooth passage and warm welcome.
And, of course, that includes the thousands of young people from overseas who choose to come and study in the UK every year, attracted by our world-class higher education sector.
With a Russell Group university (Southampton) on her constituency doorstep, Ms Nokes will already be well aware of how crucial students are to this sector, how much they contribute to the UK’s success in research and innovation and how important they are to a thriving society, culture and economy.
Just this week, a new study has revealed the net benefit of international students in the UK, broken down for the first time by parliamentary constituency and for each member of the resident population.
This timely London Economics report, commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan, comes as the sector is busy gathering evidence to submit to the Migration Advisory Committee’s inquiry into the social and economic impact of international students in the UK, which is due to report in the autumn. It will make an important addition to this body of evidence, given that it is the first comprehensive economic analysis to consider the costs of these students as well as their benefits.
Last October, the Russell Group published its own analysis prepared by London Economics, which showed that every seven non-UK students undertaking an undergraduate degree at one of our 24 universities generate £1 million of impact to the UK economy.
The new report has gone on to estimate the costs to the exchequer of these students across all UK universities, and compared this to their gross benefit. Overall, the research shows that the benefit of hosting non-EU students is 14.8 times greater than the total cost. For EU students, it is 4.6 times greater.
This report shows unequivocally that the economic benefits of international students far outweigh their costs – with London Economics estimating a total net economic contribution of international students starting in 2015/16 of £20.3 billion.
Crucially, this benefit is spread across the whole of the UK, impacting all regions and constituencies.
However, while striking, as the report itself acknowledges, it underestimates the true contribution of international students. This is because international students bring a range of benefits that are difficult to measure and define in monetary terms.
For example, international students benefit our universities by ensuring that many courses remain viable, which provides UK students with greater choice. International students also increase the social and cultural diversity of our campuses, enriching the research and learning environment and helping home students to develop internationally relevant skills. Foreign PhD students bring new research ideas and expertise to our universities and help to strengthen their international partnerships.
As graduates, international students increase the country’s soft power when they return home and become informal ambassadors for the UK and our universities, strengthening trade, research and diplomatic links. Some international graduates will also remain in the UK to work, many filling professional-level jobs in high-value sectors, making additional tax and National Insurance contributions and developing the UK’s skilled workforce.
The benefits are numerous. Which is why it’s a concern that, although the UK’s global share of international students is considerable, it has been losing pace with competitor countries over recent years.
The UK needs an internationally competitive offer to continue to attract international students. It also needs to ensure that they have a positive experience while in the UK – for example, by making the visa process smooth, proportionate and predictable, before and during their studies.
Post-study work is one area in which the UK’s offer is less attractive than many of its competitors, which is why the announcement before Christmas by Ms Nokes’ predecessor, Brandon Lewis, of the expansion of the Tier 4 pilot for master’s students was so important, and why the government should now consider building on the success of this pilot to enable more institutions and more students to benefit.
Such measures will be needed to secure long-term growth in the UK and to maximise the benefits that international students and skilled international graduates bring.
There are 200,000 students from overseas currently studying at Russell Group universities. We hope that the new minister will recognise the immense value that they bring. To promote the UK as a dynamic and outward-looking nation, we need to continue to welcome them and those who wish to follow them in the years ahead.
Hollie Chandler is senior policy analyst at the Russell Group.