Vince Cable wants more high-achieving overseas graduates to be allowed to stay in the UK to work after warning that international students receive a “warmer welcome” in rival nations such as the US and Australia.
However, one vice-chancellor said that the complexities of such a move could deter students from coming to the UK.
Speaking at the Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Glasgow, the business secretary said there was “tension and argument” within the coalition over international students. But he raised the prospect of relaxing the rules that prevent overseas graduates from UK universities staying in the country to work unless they secure “graduate-level” jobs.
“We’ve already got PhDs out of the post-study work restrictions. I’d like to extend that to master’s and maybe first-class undergraduate degrees. That’s something we’ve got to continue to push for,” Mr Cable told a fringe event on universities and growth, held on 16 September.
Mr Cable also mentioned the plan in a speech at the Universities UK conference, held at the University of Leicester last week.
At the fringe event, he argued that the “substantial income” offered to international students by post-study work had been “one of the main attractions” of UK study.
He warned that there were “a lot of perception issues, particularly in India, where the message has got back that the British do not want overseas students. [Indian] numbers have fallen sharply…a lot of them have gone off to the [US] and Australia where they tend to have a warmer welcome.”
A UUK spokesman said that creating more post-study work options “would certainly help secure the UK’s attractiveness to talented international students”.
However, Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and chair of the University Alliance, queried whether more “ifs and buts” about exceptions to existing post-study rules could “do more harm” than good.
He said that rather than “half-hearted” attempts to encourage overseas applicants, “our collective goal must be to remove students from the net migration figures”.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dem conference passed an education motion committing the party to “removing international students from the immigration figures”.
Edward Acton, the University of East Anglia’s vice-chancellor, said: “If that triggers a positive auction between the parties to show their determination, through their manifestos, to heal the damage wrought by the Home Office in the past three years, the national interest will be well served.”