Ex-minister backs UK block on overseas students’ dependants

International Higher Education Commission calls for shift in international student numbers towards full-time degrees

May 24, 2023
Chris Skidmore

Reducing the number of dependants accompanying international students to the UK has received the backing of former universities minister Chris Skidmore, in his role as International Higher Education Commission (IHEC) chair.

In setting out its interim report, the group of former government cabinet ministers, academics and higher education leaders also called for more international student recruitment to be focused on full-time degrees, rather than one-year master’s courses.

Publication of the report follows the move by Suella Braverman, the home secretary, to ban international postgraduate students from bringing family members to the country unless they are on research courses. Undergraduate students are already unable to bring dependants with them to the UK.

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore, the convenor and chairman of the IHEC, said the announcement was “on balance the correct way forward”.

“There has been a rowing back from looking at overall international student numbers and placing a cap on these, which would have been disastrous both for the UK economy and the HE sector, given that international students contribute over £40 billion to our local regions,” he added.

“It is right that the issue of dependents is looked at, in order to create a more sustainable international higher education system.”

Mr Skidmore, who launched the government’s first International Education Strategy in 2019, with its target of 600,000 international students, said it was time to revisit the strategic framework for UK higher education. “There are increasing questions about where that strategy takes us, the consequences of it for the sector and stakeholders, and speculation that future policy announcements may be made on international student visas, in the context of changed geopolitics since 2019.”

The IHEC’s interim “International Education Strategy 2.0” report seeks to take a data-led approach to ensure sustainable growth in international student numbers, as Mr Skidmore warned it is not a “time for complacency”.

“Current buoyant international student numbers are largely the result of a particular set of circumstances and unlikely to be sustainable in the long term," he said.

“Further, student numbers alone do not ensure resilience in the UK sector.”

He also backed the decision to keep the two-year post-study work visa in place, following reports it was also under threat.

Fellow commissioners of the IHEC, which was formally launched in November, include former universities ministers Lord Johnson and Lord Willetts.

The report’s recommendations include addressing an over-reliance on one-year master’s students, highlighting that the intake of international master’s students increased by almost 62,000 over the past year.

Increased postgraduate recruitment poses affordability challenges for accessing UK higher education and drives up the overall costs, particularly in terms of accommodation, for all international students, the report found.

A shift to full-time degrees would ensure that international education can provide full value to students in the longer term and involve a much less expensive recruitment cycle, said Mr Skidmore.

The report also calls for better data and timely visa information about dependants to effectively shape policy decisions.


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