International student cap would torpedo levelling up – Greening

Former education secretary joined by 14 vice-chancellors in warning Westminster government against restricting overseas enrolment to ‘elite’ universities only

December 22, 2022
Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening

A former education secretary has joined forces with vice-chancellors to warn that limiting international students to the UK’s “elite” universities only could torpedo the Westminster government’s levelling-up agenda.

Downing Street and the Home Office have both recently hinted at introducing new limits on study visas, in an attempt to bring net migration down. One idea that has been floated is limiting the right to recruit overseas learners to “elite” institutions.

But in a letter to education secretary Gillian Keegan, her predecessor Justine Greening warns that restricting international enrolment to a “self-selecting subset of universities” risks “widening the levelling-up gap in the higher education sector, undermining all the work on access, participation and employability that is crucial to improving social mobility and equality of opportunity”. The levelling-up agenda seeks to spread economic prosperity beyond London and the south-east of England.

Joining Ms Greening as signatories on the letter are 14 vice-chancellors, including Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and president of Universities UK.

“Cutting back the fee income from higher international student fees means fewer resources within universities cross-subsidising course investment for UK students. It would financially destabilise the higher education sector, but particularly universities serving areas where there is a less strong track record of participation in higher education. Restricting international student numbers in this way would take higher education resources out of the areas that needed it the most,” the letter says.

“Of course, for those international students who represent the high-skilled workforce Britain needs, it would be also counterproductive from an economic growth perspective to restrict international students from studying and building links in the very areas and regions where levelling up is most needed and where businesses particularly need that higher-skilled workforce to grow.”

The Department for Education is thought to have pushed back strongly on the proposal to restrict international student recruitment. Appearing before the House of Commons Education Select Committee earlier this month, Ms Keegan said that overseas enrolment would continue to “expand and grow”, noting that foreign students were a “huge economic contributor to the areas around a university but also to the country”.

Ms Keegan argued that students from overseas coming to the country to do degrees should be seen as a separate issue from other migration challenges such as people crossing the Channel on small boats.

In their letter, Ms Greening and the vice-chancellors say they are “keen to see how we can support [Ms Keegan] in making the case for a more informed approach within government”.

“International students should be counted separately from other elements of migration, and the number of international students who have brought over dependants or other family members is anyhow extremely small,” the letter adds.

“With international students included in net migration numbers, the risk is that it gives a distorted picture of the underlying wider reality on overall longer-term migration and focuses efforts to control such migration simplistically and self-defeatingly in the wrong area with damaging impacts on the government’s levelling-up aims.”

Alongside Professor West, the vice-chancellors putting their names to the letter are: Mark Smith (University of Southampton); Nick Jennings (Loughborough University); Martin Jones (Staffordshire University); Andy Long (Northumbria University); Kathryn Mitchell (University of Derby); Cara Aitchison (Cardiff Metropolitan University); Jane Harrington (University of Greenwich); Anne-Marie Kilday (University of Northampton); Karen Bryan (York St John University); Pamela Gillies (Glasgow Caledonian University); Karen Stanton (Solent University); Peter John (University of West London); and Eunice Simmons (University of Chester).

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