The UK higher education sector is lobbying for a new government international education strategy to set a target to increase the number of overseas students, while a former Conservative universities minister is leading a push to bring back post-study work visas.
The moves are both driven by fears that, without concrete policy shifts to establish a more welcoming approach, the UK will fall behind key international rivals in the global race to attract students.
Jo Johnson, who was universities minister between 2015 and 2018, said that he would table an amendment to the immigration bill pressing for the return of a visa system allowing overseas graduates to seek work in the UK for an extended period after their courses end, warning that the decision to abolish such visas in 2012 – made by Theresa May as home secretary – “dented the competitiveness of our offer”. Attempts by Tory backbenchers and others to force a change could prove a flashpoint with the prime minister, who has long resisted liberalisation of the overseas student regime.
Meanwhile, the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade are expected to publish a joint international education strategy next month. One key point yet to be decided is whether the strategy will set a target for growth in the number of overseas students coming to the UK – the approach sought by Universities UK – or a more general target to grow the monetary value of education exports. The two departments may be nervous that a numerical target to increase inbound student flows could anger the powerful Home Office, which has tightened student visas in pursuing its goal to reduce net migration.
“We want a target for growth in numbers,” said Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International.
Several key competitors have “quite ambitious numerical targets” and such targets send “a really strong signal that we think students coming to the UK is great, that we want more of them, that we are welcoming and open”, she added.
The Australian government announced in 2016 a target to increase its onshore international student numbers from 500,000 to 720,000 by 2025, while Canada and Germany have surpassed their targets for growth ahead of schedule.
By contrast, the number of non-European Union students in the UK fell from 310,205 in 2013-14 to 307,540 in 2016-17, before rising to 319,340 in 2017-18.
Ms Stern said that she hoped the strategy would help the “government get its policy ducks in a row and get Home Office policy aligned behind the government’s broader ambitions, in terms of our place in the world and our future relationships”.
On post-study work, the immigration bill introduced to the House of Commons last month aims to end freedom of movement between the UK and the EU and establish a new post-Brexit immigration regime.
Mr Johnson, whose amendment could be introduced at the end of February, said that the “generosity or otherwise of the post-study work regime is pretty fundamental” to a nation’s ability to attract international students.
“I was always struck when I was doing the job [of universities minister] by the extent to which that move back in 2012 [to abolish post-study work visas] dented the competitiveness of our offer compared to what other countries were prepared to do,” Mr Johnson said.
Australia has a post-study work offer ranging between two to four years, depending on level of study, while the US, Canada, Germany and New Zealand also have post-study work offers.
At present, non-EU students in the UK have four months after the completion of their course in which to find a skilled job – which the government proposes to increase to six for undergraduates.
UUK has proposed a “global graduate talent visa”, which would mean that all higher education institutions registered as skilled worker visa sponsors could sponsor graduates to work in the UK for up to two years after graduation. After that period, graduates would either apply to switch on to a skilled worker visa or leave the UK.
Mr Johnson said that a two-year post-study work visa is “ultimately… where we need to get to”. But “what the amendment ends up saying – I’m still working on that”, he added.
Mr Johnson said his involvement with the issue has been “a frustrating experience”, as it is “a missed opportunity for the country, a missed opportunity for our university system – having to compete with one hand tied behind its back”.
He added: “The students come and study here – they form friendships, create bonds with the country that later become trade ties, diplomatic ties, cultural bonds. All of that opportunity goes if you don’t have a competitive post-study visa offer.”
Ms Stern said that a two-year post-study work visa “really would make us competitive with the other systems that are using their education systems as a really powerful force of attraction. I think there’s a reasonable number of parliamentarians who agree with that”.