International students ‘good for UK universities’, says Keegan

Education secretary uses Education World Forum speech to praise benefits overseas students bring as government considers making changes to the graduate visa

May 20, 2024
Gillian Keegan
Source: UK Parliament
Gillian Keegan

Education secretary Gillian Keegan has praised the benefits international students bring to the UK after reports that she is at odds with fellow Cabinet ministers over whether the country should introduce restrictions on its graduate visa. 

Appearing at the Education World Forum (EWF) in front of dozens of fellow ministers from around the globe, Ms Keegan said the UK was “home to some of the world’s top universities who benefit from strong international ties,” and highlighted how the country “has educated 58 current and recent world leaders”.

A major review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) concluded last week that the UK’s post-study work visa should remain in place after it found “no evidence” it was being widely abused.

But some Conservatives are still pushing the government to scrap or restrict the use of the visa as part of efforts to bring down legal migration. 

According to reports over the weekend, Ms Keegan wrote to prime minister Rishi Sunak to raise concerns about the economic impact of further curbs on international students as speculation mounts that there may be an announcement connected to this week’s migration figures, due out on 23 May. 

In her speech Ms Keegan also boasted of how students from more than 208 countries travel to study at the UK’s institutions, and how the British universities lead the world in producing valuable research – ranking first in the G7 for publication impact.

Campus resource: How can faculty members facilitate short-term international student mobility programmes?

The MAC review found that the two-year visa was “not undermining the integrity of and quality of the UK higher education system”, and instead had helped universities to expand the range of courses offered while making up for financial losses on domestic students and research.

Ms Keegan echoed this finding, telling the conference: “The UK remains the destination of choice for many students, attracting the brightest from around the world. It’s good for our universities, it supports the creation of all places for domestic students.”

The secretary of state also highlighted the strength of the UK’s transnational education offerings, which eliminate the need for expensive travel. “It’s a solution that’s successfully unlocking the global potential of Britain’s universities and giving access to better educational opportunities,” she said.

Reports said Ms Keegan was part of a group of ministers that also included the foreign secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, and the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, in arguing that the visa should stay.

Most voters appear to agree with them, according to polling carried out by Survation on behalf of the Russell Group. This finds that just 2 per cent believe the government should prioritise reducing immigration numbers by restricting the ability of students to stay in the UK after their studies and 1 per cent believe a reduction in international students should be prioritised in Whitehall.

Nearly half – 43 per cent – say the economic contribution of international students is positive and 50 per cent backed the idea of bringing more to the UK to help the economy; a statement only 13 per cent disagreed with.

Half the voters believe a cut in the number of international students in the UK would lead to increased domestic tuition fees and 58 per cent feel that universities should be able to use international student fees to support the sector.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, has written to Mr Sunak warning that further changes in the rules governing international students are not necessary because of the “highly significant” impact of the ban on master’s students bringing dependants with them when they study, which has led to decreased enrolments across the sector.

Universities in the research-intensive grouping have seen an overall drop of 10 per cent in applications for postgraduate taught degrees from overseas starting this September, Mr Bradshaw says, adding that if this trend continues it could cost the group more than £500 million in income.

Because it only covers the period ending in December 2023, the changes will not be fully reflected in the latest migration data due out on 23 May, which is widely thought to be key in shaping the government’s thinking on the issue.

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