Leader: Take your money elsewhere

So the UK tells foreign students with its visa regime. Australia once did too, but it has changed its tune to hang on to a rich trade

September 29, 2011

A few months ago, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills slipped out a report that estimated the value of UK education exports at £14.1 billion in 2008-09, with other spending by overseas students put at £4.3 billion.

It also considered how much the government's immigration policy could cost the economy. Should visa restrictions lead to a 10 per cent fall in the number of overseas students at UK universities and colleges, it calculated, the country would lose out on £2.33 billion (at current prices) in fee income and other student spending by 2025.

One has to wonder whether ministers read their own government's reports when we see Home Office regulations once again hampering universities' efforts to recruit overseas. Hundreds of independent colleges, some of which provide foundation years to foreign students, face ruin after failing to submit applications for the new accreditation scheme. Those that missed the cut-off date of 9 September may not now apply to the UK Border Agency for Highly Trusted Sponsor status, which they will need from April 2012 if they wish to recruit non-European Union students.

Those that have met the deadline are by no means home free: there is confusion about the inspection process, and scores of colleges could fail to make the grade as a result. This would have a knock-on effect on higher education enrolments because many private colleges supply overseas students to UK universities.

Signs of flagging overseas interest are already visible. There has been a reported 20 per cent drop in international student numbers for 2011-12 at the University of Greenwich and at Middlesex University; both had recruited heavily in India, but students there have been hit by the visa restrictions and now have negative perceptions of UK institutions.

All this is in stark contrast to Australia, which seems to have learned from its immigration mistakes and is now preparing to step up recruitment of foreign students.

Not long ago, a combination of widely publicised violent attacks against Indian students and stringent rules for skilled migration hit the country's universities and educational exports badly: its 2010-11 earnings were almost 10 per cent lower than the previous year's. At the same time, the US and Canada began to woo China, whose students were unhappy with the trouble they had getting visas for Australia, even though they made up the bulk of the country's overseas market.

Determined to preserve its market share, Australia's government has acted swiftly on a report on its education export industry. It has streamlined visa-processing arrangements for university courses to give prospective students faster and easier approvals in time for the country's second semester next year.

Jubilant vice-chancellors will seize the gift with both hands. "The reforms announced are more positive than anyone...expected, (and) they come when competitors are kicking own goals," Fred Hilmer, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, has said.

Indeed, the UK is becoming expert in scoring own goals. While Australia brushes off the welcome mat and looks to boost its income from higher education, the UK is pulling up the drawbridge, hobbling its universities and watching absently as billions of pounds slip through its fingers.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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