The Migration Advisory Committee’s review of UK policy on overseas students made grim reading for many in the higher education sector, rejecting calls to remove international learners from net migration statistics and to reintroduce post-study work visas.
However, its panel did recommend that leave to remain in the UK be extended to six months after graduation for all master’s students and to 12 months for all PhD students, along with an easing of the rules for those switching from student to skilled worker visas.
Here is how sector leaders have responded to the review.
Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: “While the report recognises the enormous contribution international students make to life in the UK, we are disappointed with its main recommendations. We agree that the government and the sector should continue to work together to grow the number of international students, but growth will only be possible if we have an immigration system that encourages talented international students to choose the UK.
“The ability to work in a skilled job for a limited period after graduation is, for many prospective international students, an important part of the overall package when deciding where to study. Universities UK called last week for a new graduate visa that would make the UK more attractive to students and would allow a wider range of employers, in all parts of the UK, to benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world. This improved post-study visa would put us on a par with what is offered by countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.
“While the UK continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its net migration target, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers. This adds to the perception that they are not welcome here. In countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, international students are classified as temporary migrants, alongside tourists and visitors. A change of policy from government in this area would have public backing. Polling suggests that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors.”
Professor Beer added: “While the UK remains one of the most popular locations in the world for talented international students and staff, we have seen a slowdown in recent years compared to other countries. The UK could be doing much better than this, with the potential to be one of the world’s fastest growing destinations for international students and staff. There is now a real opportunity for the UK to develop an immigration policy that recognises the value of international students as temporary visitors and tells the world that they are welcome here.”
Gordon Marsden, shadow higher education minister, said: “We are extremely disappointed that the Migration Advisory Committee have failed to recommend removing students from the government’s net migration targets despite overwhelming evidence in favour of this from the sector.
“Despite considerable evidence about the important role international students’ play in our universities and communities, the MAC [has] failed to produce recommendations to support them. There is no sense here of the government’s urgent need to do far more to support our HE sector and universities internationally, which we have consistently emphasised. This [is] despite the stiff competition and difficult circumstances post-Brexit, which the MAC report concedes will be substantial – whether on Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 or other support post-Brexit.”
Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, said: “The Migration Advisory Committee’s report represents a missed opportunity for the continued influence and reputation of the UK’s world class university sector.
“While the MAC is right to document the highly positive impact of international students in the UK, the committee appears to set aside – without a clear rationale – the compelling evidence submitted to change the UK’s self-defeating policy of restricting the numbers of international students. I would challenge the MAC’s view that including international students in the overall migration target has little or no impact on recruitment – there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
“We call on the government, through the immigration bill expected at the end of the year, to unite around a common-sense policy to encourage international students to study in the UK. This should be a joined-up strategy implemented across all relevant government departments and the devolved administrations.
“While Britain has been treading water on international recruitment in recent years our competitor countries have benefitted from a significant boost to their student numbers. As our exit from the EU looms, the opportunities presented by international students must be seized and our offer to these students consolidated. Such a move would represent a clear step change in delivering on the promise of building a global Britain in the years to come.”
James Pitman of Destination for Education (representing Cambridge Education Group, Into, Kaplan, Navitas and Study Group), said: “We had hoped the committee would set out meaningful recommendations to help the UK recover market share. But maintaining the status quo will do nothing to restore Britain’s leadership in education exports. Our international competitors will continue to outperform us.
“Despite admitting that the UK is falling behind its competitors in attracting students who contribute to the national economy, create local jobs, and have a positive impact on public finances, the committee fails to recommend what is needed to address this worrying trend.
“However, we are pleased the committee recommends that the government should work to grow the number of international students studying in the UK. We agree it is time for the government to set out positive proposals to restore Britain’s place as the world’s leading destination for international students.”
John Bramwell, acting director of education at the British Council, said: “As has been shown by the open and progressive strategies of Australia and Germany, and the ambitious strategies of China and Singapore, clear and welcoming messages to international students and higher education partners can reap significant economic and social benefits.
“There remain opportunities not yet fulfilled by the MAC outcomes. Many overseas sponsors of international students, including the parents of those choosing to study outside of their home country, will need reassurance that these proposals can offer significant benefits, particularly in comparison with other choices they can make.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “International students make an enormous contribution to UK higher education both educationally and economically. This report is a missed opportunity for us to send a message to the rest of the world saying that the UK is open for business and welcomes international students.”
Jane Gratton, head of business environment and skills at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Business communities around the UK will be bitterly disappointed not to see support for the removal of overseas students from the immigration statistics. We have been calling for the removal of these students from the immigration figures for a long time as the vast majority go home after completing their courses.
“The committee is right to recommend that it should be easier for overseas students to work here at the end of their studies. International students benefit local economies up and down the country, not only through their direct spending power, but also through their skills, languages and cultural awareness. At a time when three-quarters of firms are struggling to fill job vacancies, it makes sense to attract and harness the talent of international students.
“It’s time to scrap the caps and arbitrary numerical targets. It’s one thing to control migration, but quite another to use arbitrary mechanisms that deny businesses, universities and public sector employers the people they need to address immediate skills gaps.
“The government should also restore a post-a study work visa that allows British universities and companies to benefit from the energy of some of the people they have trained. Now more than ever, the UK should be striving to attract the brightest talent from around the world, and our future immigration policy should reflect that instead of a fixation with targets.”