When MPs on the Home Affairs select committee conducted an inquiry into student visas three years ago, they were highly critical of the government’s approach and warned that greater regulation could have serious unintended consequences.
Earlier this year, it emerged that the number of international students enrolling at English universities had dropped for the first time in decades. This is a clear warning signal to government and requires a new review.
The debate focuses on four key issues. What benefits do international students bring to the UK? Should students be counted in net immigration figures? What are the dangers to the UK of unlimited access for students and what controls are required to optimise benefit and minimise risk?
Only rabid chauvinists fail to understand the many benefits gained by welcoming students from all over the world to our schools and universities. Yet the contribution made by international students is too often simplified and discussed in financial terms, ignoring the wider values.
Certainly, the revenue brought in from international students is vital, supporting universities and boosting the economy. Under current funding models, parts of the UK school system and much of the higher education sector would be unsustainable without this revenue. No matter how it is calculated, the total revenue exceeds £10 billion per annum.
However, income is possibly the least of the benefits brought by international students if viewed through a long-term strategic lens.
With a globalising economy, shifting socio-political alliances and complex trade relationships, it is essential that British students develop genuine international awareness. Attracting a diverse student population to the UK enriches the learning of domestic students and helps them develop this perspective, aiding their own employability and our economy. This is why it is so important that universities ensure that international students are integrated into their communities and not simply treated as cash cows.
And there are longer-term strategic benefits. Before the 1970s, the provision of first-class education in the UK contributed substantially to the building of soft power relationships. Those who had studied in Britain and perhaps worked here before returning to their home nations or settling elsewhere in the world, developed a loyalty to the UK. That loyalty had a very positive impact on political relationships and trade. It is of note that one in ten heads of state were educated in the UK. Recent research has shown a decline in these numbers and an erosion of loyalty, to the detriment of Britain.
The UK needs to continue to attract the brightest and best students from all over the world and to provide a first rate learning experience. Students are not migrants. The vast majority of good students want to return to their own countries or to work in thriving economies all over the world. Indeed, parents who pay the tuition fees of international students, and foreign governments who allow students to study abroad, would be less enthusiastic if most of these bright young people did not return home.
We must also encourage the best foreign graduates to remain in Great Britain for a period, contributing to the UK economy by building on the learning that we have provided. It is counterproductive to transfer the best knowledge from our world class institutions to students and then to insist that they take it away and exploit it elsewhere. In other parts of the world, such as Hong Kong, students are subsidised to stay on for postgraduate study and grants are provided, encouraging them to remain and start new businesses.
It is right to eliminate bogus colleges and students. The sector should support any government’s plans to tighten the accreditation of language schools and private sector providers but should reconsider the structure for accreditation. There should be a single streamlined accreditation system, with students excluded from net immigration figures. Any cap on student visas is unnecessary and undesirable.
The government’s policy ought to be evidence-based, yet there is concern that the data used in assessing migration figures are not fit for purpose and could inhibit effective policymaking. Policymaking based on flawed evidence could cripple the UK education sector. With fewer international students, we will lose revenue, reputation and influence.
But enhancing the position of UK education requires collaboration between politicians, educational leaders and employers. For this reason, a conference next week will bring these groups together to discuss the economic, educational and cultural impact of student visa policy and the way forward.
Rather than slamming the door shut, we must act swiftly to recognise the diverse ways in which international students contribute to our country and make it clear that they are welcome.