It's time to rebuild Brand Britain

Sonal Minocha recalls her own experience as an international student and argues that post-study work visas must be brought back

November 20, 2014

Source: Nate Kitch

Greg Clark, the universities minister, has just returned from India on a trip designed to reassure South Asian students that the UK’s universities welcome them with open arms.

Thirteen years ago, I travelled more than 4,000 miles in the opposite direction. Armed with a degree in commerce from the University of Delhi, I was on my way to study as a master’s student at Northumbria University – one of 152,600 international students who enrolled at UK higher education institutions in 2001.

At the end of my degree, I had a life-changing conversation with my dissertation supervisor. While I was delighted with my time at Northumbria on the international business programme, I felt that the experience could have been more practical and business facing – perhaps with an inbuilt internship, consultancy experience or the chance to get involved in industry projects. The university responded by giving me the opportunity to undertake further research through its doctorate in business administration programme and a teaching contract, allowing me to shape the kind of education I believed in. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. (Of course, the alternative back home would have been an arranged marriage.)

It wasn’t easy, juggling writing a thesis with part-time teaching, course management and paying the bills, and all of this in a context that was still very new to me. Yet I never felt like a foreigner.

The last thing on my mind was my visa. My university organised it: they took my passport away for a few weeks and returned it with a student visa for my doctorate. When I secured a full-time academic contract at Northumbria in 2003, the university arranged a work permit.

So I was one of the 79 per cent of international students who remained in the UK under the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme and other routes in 2002-03.

Only 6,238 overseas students were granted an extension to stay in the country last year. That is just 2 per cent of the cohort of international students. Two years earlier, in 2011, the figure was 46,875. In other words, the numbers staying fell by 87 per cent in a period of 24 months, despite a 74 per cent increase in non-European Union enrolments in the years since my arrival.

This was all thanks to the introduction of two acronyms that are now all too familiar to those working in higher education – HTS (Highly Trusted Status) and PBS (Points-Based System) – and the abandonment of the post-study work visa.

All of this raises a number of vital questions. Do we really want to say “go away” to the £7 billion that non-EU students are contributing to the UK economy? To the 18 per cent of students from overseas who made up the student body in 2012-13? To the 137,000 jobs created through spending by non-EU students? To companies founded or co-founded by migrant entrepreneurs, which make up 14.5 per cent of UK businesses and employ 1.16 million people around the country, many of whom may have first travelled to the UK as international students?

If the answer to these is “no”, we need to revisit “Brand Britain”.

First, and most importantly, we need to bring back the post-study work visa. Let’s admit it, we got it wrong. A 49 per cent reduction in enrolments from India (an economy that could counterbalance our overreliance on China) in the two years to 2012-13 should be reason enough. The fact that our nearest competitors – the US and Australia – have rectified their visa policies to gain an edge over us in post-study work opportunities is another clear sign that we need to change our approach.

Second, we need intelligent information. While several private providers have conducted rigorous research into their international student body, as a sector, we don’t yet have a consistent set of data and analyses about overseas students (current and potential) on which to base our educational and policy decisions. It’s time for a “big data” project to examine how Brand Britain is perceived, its attractions as a study destination and the factors that encourage talented people to stay. A partnership project, involving the government and the higher education sector, could be a powerful enabler of effective policies.

These days, UK universities are very good at competing with each other.

When it comes to international students, however, it is time to collaborate. Here, our competition is not internal but with the US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. So, last but not least, let’s share our international recruitment services, let’s take delegations to the emerging economies and let’s present a unifying and united brand.

Together we need to rebuild Brand Britain so that – no matter where it originates – the next generation of talent carries a “made in Britain” tag.

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Reader's comments (1)

Good article, though I'm not sure the real issue is the need to 'rebuild brand Britain'. Rather, the British government (and nation) needs to be unequivocal about the value it assigns to international students; not just in terms of the financial contribution they make to the UK economy. Is the UK serious about competing with other top study abroad destinations, and is it willing to support its ambition with the right policies? Also, the reference to 'made in Britain' in the article's closing sentence has made me wonder: when can we rightfully claim that talent was 'made in Britain'? Is it enough to get young students over here for a maximum of five years and expect them to go back home almost immediately at the end of their Undergrad or Masters studies? Is it not essential for them to have the opportunity to live and work in the country that has provided all or part of their higher education, so that they can consolidate the skills and knowledge gained from their degree with practical experience? Dare I say it takes more than a degree for us to be able to point to successful alumni and proudly say 'made in Britain'.

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