New universities minister Jo Johnson has been warned that his declared target to increase education exports by billions of pounds will require a “cross-government effort”, including from the Home Office.
Mr Johnson delivered his first speech in his new role at the British Council’s Going Global conference for international education leaders in London on 1 June, stating that the UK is “committed to increasing education exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020”.
It is thought to be the first time that a government minister has committed to the £30 billion target in public.
The figure was agreed internally at an October 2014 meeting of the International Education Council, which brings together government and education sector representatives, as part of a drive to double the UK’s exports across all sectors to £1 trillion by 2020.
The minutes from the meeting, chaired by Sir Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, state that Lord Livingston, the trade and investment minister, had led a process to identify “what might be achievable in each sector” on exports. “This concluded that the aspiration for international education was to reach £30 billion by 2020,” the minutes continue.
The Conservative manifesto promises to “reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire”. That could raise questions about whether the £30 billion target can be achieved.
But there are also suggestions within the sector that the government is considering a plan to reintroduce a two-year post-study work visa for institutions where less than 5 per cent of prospective students’ visas are refused.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, welcomed Mr Johnson’s speech. “Other countries, such as Germany, have recently adopted ambitious targets for educational exports and we must do so too if we are to retain our market share, let alone increase it,” he said.
But in a reference to Home Office policies on overseas students often perceived by universities as damaging, he said: “To achieve £30 billion is likely to need a cross-government effort, with other departments helping to support the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ ambition.”
During a Q&A session with reporters after the speech, Times Higher Education asked Mr Johnson if he would challenge the Home Office if necessary and advocate the reintroduction of post-study work visas. He replied: “It’s in the interests of everybody in the higher education sector to drive up quality and standards. The Home Office is doing a job for everybody in this respect by clamping down on bogus colleges…and in dealing with fraudulent student applications.”