The government has cut the amount that overseas graduates need to earn if they want to work in the UK after they finish their courses, potentially making British universities more attractive international destinations.
Meanwhile, a senior civil servant has argued that attracting international students is the best way for the UK to make money from education, warning that overseas branch campuses are unlikely to offer comparable economic benefits.
Currently, non-European Union graduates of UK universities have to earn above a certain threshold dependent on their profession if they want to stay in the UK to work.
But from 6 April, a lower “new entrant” threshold will be introduced for overseas graduates, those under 25 and graduate trainees switching countries with their firms.
Normal workers have to earn at least as much as the bottom quarter of those in their occupation, but new entrants will only have to earn more than the bottom 10th.
For example, a “higher education teaching professional” would previously have had to start on £30,000 a year, but for a new graduate the figure will now be £23,800.
However, after three years, new entrants’ wages will have to meet the standard thresholds if they want to keep their work visas.
Daniel Stevens, international students’ officer at the National Union of Students, said the new thresholds would be easier to meet, as the old ones were too high.
“We had many cases of students finding a company more than willing to sponsor them because they had a skills shortage, but couldn’t offer the salary because it was ridiculously high,” he explained.
In 2010, the coalition scrapped international graduates’ automatic right to work in the UK for two years after their courses, introducing the salary thresholds instead.
Critics fear the move has made UK higher education less attractive, particularly in India: the number of Indian students studying at UK universities fell by 24 per cent in 2011-12, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Last month, Prime Minister David Cameron used a trade mission to India to drive home the message that there was no limit to the number of students from the country who could work in the UK - providing they secured graduate-level jobs.
Meanwhile, at a conference titled The Internationalisation of Higher Education - UK competitiveness, student mobility and the development of overseas campuses, held in London on 21 March, a senior civil servant at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills gave a “sitrep” of the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy for the UK education sector, due to be published this spring.
Maddalaine Ansell, head of BIS’ International Knowledge and Innovation Unit (Global), said that the first priority of the strategy would be to use education to help “return the economy to growth”.
But despite increases in the number of branch campuses and UK degrees being offered abroad, she said that “most of the contribution to the UK bottom line comes from international students” studying here.
“There is lots of [transnational education] going on, but it is not obvious that that’s coming back to the UK through tax,” she said, adding: “It’s not clear…that international students…at branch campuses would bring as much money to the UK” as those studying on British soil.