Cutting foreign student visas is the wrong move at the wrong time

Politically driven plans to reduce access to UK higher education will seriously harm a £5bn-a-year success story, says Nicola Dandridge

February 3, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

The government's economic policy faced intense scrutiny last week. Questions were being asked about whether the UK has a coherent strategy for growth. Certainly December's GDP figures suggest that there is a real danger of our fragile recovery going into reverse.

The UK has several thriving export industries, of which higher education is one of the most successful. Research by Universities UK indicates that international students contribute more than £5 billion a year to the national economy; they also bring money and jobs into local economies.

It is an area of activity in which universities have invested significantly and, notwithstanding stiff international competition, it is one that they are planning to expand.

And it is one that we are very good at: the 2010 International Student Barometer recorded a 93 per cent satisfaction rate in the expertise of the academics teaching international students in the UK. It is a high-value activity and enhances our international reputation.

The arguments also extend far beyond economics. International students add greatly to the cultural diversity and global perspectives on our campuses. Our graduate network of international alumni extends our "soft power" abroad. However you look at it, this is exactly the sort of activity that our government should be supporting and encouraging in difficult economic and geopolitical times.

Instead, the Home Office's proposals outlined in The Student Immigration System: A Consultation, if implemented, will do great damage in significantly constraining the flow of international students into our universities. Some institutions will see the number of non-European Union students they are allowed to recruit cut by 50 per cent. The proposals will reduce income from abroad, leading to local jobs being lost.

In brief, the consultation proposes an increase in the standard of English language required to come into the country (to, broadly speaking, A-level fluency). It reduces the ability of students to bring any dependants with them, it stops or limits the ability of students to work once they have completed their degrees, and it introduces a number of other constraints.

It is not good enough for the government to say that international students can still come to the UK to study for undergraduate degrees. The reality is that over a third of international students in UK universities will have come from pre-degree programmes undertaken here, or would have been attracted to the UK because of the opportunity of post-study work experience.

The government's original proposals on immigration related to the elimination of abuse of our immigration system, and the reduction in numbers of economic migrants. They were a manifesto commitment. However, the consultation now has little to do with either abuse or economic migration.

In relation to abuse, Universities UK is absolutely supportive of any proposal that seeks to clamp down on this. Fraudulent use of the student route not only allows people into the UK who have no right to be here, but damages our reputation as a high-quality destination for international students.

As it happens, the UK Border Agency's own study of compliance rates conducted in December 2010 shows that levels of non-compliance with immigration controls in the university sector is at most 2 per cent of students, which is very significantly lower than what is seen in other sectors. That 2 per cent does need to be tackled. But these proposals are not targeted at people who are abusing the system; they are targeting genuine students.

International students are quite simply not economic migrants. On the contrary, the pattern is that they bring money into the country, they spend it, and then they go home. If they wish to stay, they must apply to the Home Office for another visa.

The reality is that this consultation is about reducing the numbers of people, including legitimate students, who come into the country. This is politics, not economics.

The government is now reviewing the results of the Tier 4 consultation exercise. It is right that they should respond appropriately to public concern about abuse, and arguably address economic migration as well.

But it is not right that the government should deliberately set out to damage a thriving export industry exactly when we should be investing in and nurturing it.

These consultation proposals, if implemented, will damage our universities, our international reputation and our economy. They are bad proposals.

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