Don’t cut number of international students in UK, say voters

Poll conducted for Universities UK finds 64 per cent of respondents want number of overseas learners to increase or hold steady

March 9, 2023
London, UK - September 10, 2015 Tourists talking and making a photos against of Houses of Parliament. View from the Thames embankment. London
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Cutting the number of international students coming to the UK is not a popular policy with the general public, according to polling conducted for Universities UK.

The survey of more than 2,000 adults, run by Public First, finds that 64 per cent of respondents would like to see the number of overseas learners in the UK increase or stay the same. About one in five – 21 per cent – wants the total to decrease.

The findings come amid reports that the home secretary, Suella Braverman, is looking at ways to reduce the number of international students coming to the UK, potentially by reducing the time that overseas students can remain in the UK after completing their courses to work from two years to six months.

However, only 9 per cent of respondents felt that overseas students should be discouraged from coming to the UK, compared with 42 per cent who felt they should be encouraged.

Twenty-four per cent of respondents felt that international students should leave the UK immediately after graduating or after less than a year, but 48 per cent of respondents felt that they should be allowed to stay between one and five years. Eighteen per cent felt that they should be able to stay indefinitely.

Only 32 per cent of respondents felt that international students should continue to be classed as immigrants in official statistics – seen as a key driver of Ms Braverman’s clampdown.

Another idea reportedly floated by the government is restricting international student recruitment to “elite” universities only. But only 18 per cent of respondents to the UUK poll agreed with this, with 67 per cent saying student visa holders should be able to go to whichever university they liked.

Perhaps a more likely target for Ms Braverman is the number of dependants accompanying postgraduate students to the UK. Latest figures show that the 490,763 students of all levels who came to the UK in 2022 were accompanied by a record 135,788 dependants – almost nine times the number that entered the country in 2019, and more than the total for the previous six years combined.

Ms Braverman has raised concerns about family members “piggybacking” on student visas. In the UUK survey, however, 55 per cent felt that the current rules on bringing family members – requiring them to have enough money to support themselves, to be able to speak English, and to pay upfront to access the NHS – were reasonable. One in five felt that there should be more restrictions, while 15 per cent said there should be fewer.

Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of UUK, said the polling “confirms that public perceptions of immigration, and of international students in particular, are not what the government may believe”.

“The public understands the enormous contribution that international students make to our economy, institutions and research outputs, as well as enormously benefiting the UK’s international reputation. Our international institutions are cherished by the public, and we would hope that government policy follows suit,” Ms Stern said.

The poll results do show differences in sentiment by political affiliation, with 29 per cent of voters who supported the Conservatives at the 2019 general election saying they want there to be fewer international students in the UK, compared with 15 per cent of Labour voters.

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