Plan to limit international student recruitment ‘driven by No 10’

Proposals said to have brought opposition from DfE and to have potential to end post-study work rights for graduates of institutions deemed substandard

December 5, 2022
 People wait at the international arrivals gate to illustrate Plan to limit overseas student recruitment ‘driven by No 10’
Source: Getty

The idea of restricting overseas student recruitment to the UK’s “top” universities is said to have come from No 10 rather than the Home Office, and to have brought opposition from the Department for Education, amid suggestions that graduates of institutions judged below standard could lose their post-study work rights.

After The Times reported on 25 November that international students “may be barred from Britain unless they win a place at a top university”, under plans being considered as No 10 seeks to reduce rising net migration, sector sources said there did not appear to be a specific policy proposal circulating in the government. The idea came from No 10 and did not appear to have support from the Home Office or the DfE – with the latter thought to have mounted “strong pushback”.

Other sources suggested that seeking to limit the number of dependants who accompany students on their visas was the most likely outcome, but it was judged to be not impossible that No 10 might seek to close the graduate visa route – which gives students permission to stay in the UK for at least two years after completing a course at a UK university – to graduates of universities deemed to be substandard.

That would deal a lesser blow to the finances of universities affected, compared with removing their ability to recruit from overseas completely, but it would still likely generate strong opposition from sector bodies and the DfE.

The worry is that No 10 appears to be suggesting that the graduate outcomes metrics developed for England by the Office for Students following the government’s drive against “low-value” courses – which set baselines by course and institution on dropout and continuation rates, plus numbers of graduates progressing into professional or managerial jobs – could be deployed to decide which universities would be able to recruit overseas students. That would amount to significant mission creep on the metrics.

At the same time, there is also an understanding that the government is under enormous political pressure on immigration. With quarterly figures set to show further increases in net migration, No 10 is likely to keep returning to the issue of student visas and might start more detailed policy discussions in preparation for future batches of migration statistics.

With the No 10 ideas covered widely by Indian media in particular, there is concern that talk of restricting international student numbers could impact on universities’ recruitment.

International education services firm IDP’s student demand data show that in the week commencing 26 September, the UK was enjoying a 28.27 per cent share of the demand from India across its sites, and as of 27 November this had dropped to 23.55 per cent.

The apparent absence of any firm policy proposal as yet adds to the impression that No 10 is flying some kites to see how the idea of restricting student visas might be received.

“I hope those in No 10 who were doing the kite-flying have been taken aback by the response,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, calling the idea “crazy”.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We’re all for a stable and well-managed climate for international student recruitment that doesn’t fall back into some sort of boom-and-bust cycle.

“So we’re all for maintaining a really close eye on features of the system that might be vulnerable to abuse. We’ve always been in that space; we talk to the Home Office and UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration] all the time about that. So if there is something they are particularly concerned about, let’s look at that and deal with that.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

It is so sad that we have moved in a relatively short time from the Prime Minister's Initiative to attract a large number of overseas students to our country (previous government), to a point where we are basically blocking any overseas students (who do not fit the expectations of our current government) from access to what was once considered the home of quality education. As to the definition of a "top" university, are our current ministers and leaders examples of what happens when you have attended a so-called top university? It takes years of work for universities to build up their international departments and recruitment supply chains around the globe. This does not appear to be a problem for other anglophone countries, happy to accept the students the UK rejects; or even the Dutch and French universities that are now offering degrees in the English language at considerably more favorable fees than those charged in the UK. Once again, is immigration going to be the criterion that destroys our reputation in the global student market?
Education is a vital 'export' especially in a nation that seems to have rejected 'making stuff'. It also builds life-long links between the UK and the countries whose nationals have been educated here. Both good reasons for encouraging international students instead of rejecting them. Does the current government want to destroy the UK, to make it a laughing stock? Sometimes it is hard to see what more they could do if that were their actual intention, rather than an effect of the decisions they make from what presumably they think are sound ideas for our nation's future.

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