International student numbers will continue to grow, says Keegan

Education secretary distances herself from plans to restrict study visas being pushed by No 10

December 7, 2022
Gillian Keegan
Source: UK Parliament

The UK’s education secretary has committed to working with universities to continue to “expand and grow” international student numbers despite speculation her government is planning to place new limits on visas.

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, Gillian Keegan said at her first appearance at the House of Commons Education Select Committee following her appointment in October.

Asked about reports ministers may limit the number of visas issued so they are only given to those studying at top-tier universities, Ms Keegan said international students were a “huge economic contributor to the areas around a university but also to the country”.

“What we are doing now is making sure that we work with universities to focus on how we can expand and grow still but maybe expand the breadth of countries that are benefitting from that opportunity,” she added. “I guess you can’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Times Higher Education has reported that the idea of restricting student visas came from No 10, and brought strong opposition from Ms Keegan’s department.

Ms Keegan told MPs she was “proud” of the UK’s international education strategy – which included a target of attracting 600,000 students to the country to study, a threshold that has already been reached

On the issue of whether students should be included in overall migration numbers – which reached record highs last month – she said “we started with them in so that is why they are in”.

“Clearly when we are looking at the challenge of migration, which I am not underestimating, we do have huge issues and small boats is something that concerns many of us and our constituents, but you have got to separate that from people who are coming here to do degrees. A lot of them are doing STEM degrees as well,” she added.

Press reports have focused on the number of dependents brought to the UK by students studying master’s degrees and PhDs but Ms Keegan said only a very small number of students bring their families with them and they have to prove they can support them before a visa is granted.

Appearing alongside Ms Keegan at the committee, Susan Acland-Hood, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, stressed the ability to bring dependents was part of the student visa offer and “very similar to what our competitors around the world will offer”.

“If we make changes we need to accept that means our ability to attract the best students from around the world is going to be reduced,” she added.

Ms Acland-Hood said placing restrictions on dependents would also make the country more reliant on China, which she said was the country with the highest number of students ready to come alone.

Ms Keegan was also asked by MPs about whether not having a single dedicated minister for higher education reflected a change in priorities in her department.

“Definitely not,” she answered. “We are very proud of our universities sector.” She said her time as a minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office had demonstrated to her the reputation of the sector around the world and how “well regarded and well respected” it is globally.

“It is a big part of our soft power, a big part of our economy, something we are all proud of,” she said. “If you have got a university in your constituency, we are proud of what they do every day to help people get on and be the best they can be in life and get the vital skills they need.”

She said the combination of both the higher and further education briefs in one portfolio was instead intended to ensure greater collaboration between the two sectors.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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