Restricting UK post-study visas ‘would be catastrophic mistake’

Chris Skidmore urges universities to demonstrate how international students cross-subsidise course places for domestic classmates

November 23, 2022
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Higher education institutions need to make a clearer case for how international students benefit the UK – and show that they can be sustainably accommodated by the system – to stop the issue becoming “part of a new culture war”, according to a former universities minister.

Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, who held the post for two stints between 2018 and 2020, feared that plans by the current home secretary, Suella Braverman, to place restrictions on two-year post-study visas could be a “catastrophic mistake” for the country.

If limits such as granting visas only to those studying “high demand subjects” go ahead, the UK would be introducing prohibitive measures at the exact time its international rivals are going in the other direction and broadening the amount of time students are able to stay and work in the country, Mr Skidmore said.

“I remain highly concerned that would undo the huge opportunities that have emerged as a result of the changes to the post-study work visa. We cannot afford as the United Kingdom, at this particular moment in time, to shut down a major pathway for regional and economic growth,” he told Times Higher Education.

Mr Skidmore has launched a commission to draw up proposals for what a revised international education strategy for the UK could look like, following on from the one he drew up while in government in 2019.

This strategy included a target to recruit 600,000 international students by 2030 – something that was achieved after a year – and numbers have continued to grow.

In her 43-day stint as home secretary under Liz Truss, Ms Braverman raised concerns about the “very high” number of international students and their dependants in the UK, while there have also been claims that overseas learners are being given university places at the expense of British school-leavers.

Mr Skidmore said that the recent intervention by Ms Braverman – which she has not yet repeated since returning to the Home Office under new prime minister Rishi Sunak – was part of the catalyst for a rethink of the strategy but universities also had to do some more detailed thinking into how to develop a “more sustainable approach to international education”.

The commission will consider whether there should be a new target for recruitment, but Mr Skidmore said it would be a “huge own goal for the sector to continue to expand without thinking about what the pipeline looks like and what the student experience looks like in the UK”. Institutions should not therefore recruit students unless, for example, they are sure they can offer them accommodation, Mr Skidmore said.

The commission will work out “where do we go now and…what do we need to do to underpin that – to ensure that international students do not become part of a new culture war – and demonstrate how universities are recruiting sensibly so we don’t give anyone any excuse to challenge the growth in international student numbers as being somehow antithetical to domestic students”.

To win over public opinion, he said, universities will have to counter some of the “wilful misuse” of statistics that paint a negative picture of international students taking domestic students' places and potentially talk more about how the higher fees paid by those from abroad help keep some courses viable.

“This is not something the sector has always been willing to really set out clearly,” Mr Skidmore said. “Universities are reluctant to open up their own books to show how they cross-subsidise, but I do think there is room for us to make the case around the benefits of international students, which is what the commission intends to do.”


Print headline: Ex-minister: stricter post-study visa rules would be ‘huge mistake’ for UK 

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