The government is considering relaxing post-study work rules for overseas students at research-intensive universities in what would amount to a bid to repair the damage to international recruitment caused by its visa policy.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, hosted a high-level meeting of sector leaders on how to attract more overseas students to UK universities. This may be a sign that the department is applying its muscle against the Home Office over the impact of its crackdown on immigration.
At the meeting at the Treasury last week, the Russell Group is said to have told Mr Alexander that its members are missing out on 5,000 international students a year because of current visa rules.
The possible reintroduction of post-study work visas for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects was also discussed. Some in government are thought to favour relaxing post-study work restrictions for a subset of Russell Group institutions, while others would like to extend this to a wider group of research-intensive universities.
A spokesman for the Russell Group said that it did not comment on private meetings.
An invitation sent to attendees billed the Treasury meeting as “an opportunity for government and the sector to come together to discuss the challenges of, and potential solutions to, recruiting more international students”.
That goes against the rhetoric of the Home Office, which talks of attracting “the best and the brightest” international students amid a drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015.
Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have battled the Home Office in an effort to protect higher education from the impact of that policy. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has called for overseas students to be exempted from the net migration target, while Vince Cable, the business secretary, has said it is “irrational” and “potty” to include students in the target.
The desire of Mr Alexander to gather policy ideas for the Liberal Democrats ahead of the next general election may have been another driver behind the Treasury meeting.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to Mr Willetts in BIS, said: “The Treasury could have taken a stronger line on international students long ago, so this meeting is welcome.
“But tweaks to the rules for STEM subjects or for particular institutions may not go far enough.
“All legitimate international students coming to legitimate institutions benefit the UK, so they should all be welcomed. The rules have to catch up with reality, but the Home Office has been able to stop that happening to date.”
Scheduled attendees at the meeting included Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England; Sir Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol and UK international “education champion”; Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group; and Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities. Mr Cable’s special adviser, Giles Wilkes, was another on the guest list.
Overseas campuses were one item on the agenda, under the heading of “innovative ideas to promote UK exports”.
Mr Alexander is said to have suggested that UK universities are not entrepreneurial enough overseas, pressing a University of Nottingham representative about the financial returns from its Asia campuses.
But sector representatives are thought to have stressed that branch campus returns often came in research collaborations and “soft power” rather than in direct payments.
Mr Alexander is also said to have been concerned to hear of the money “lost” to the sector by payments to overseas recruiting agents. The meeting is thought to have explored a possible bigger role for the British Council in acting as an “agent” for UK universities in emerging markets.
Some sector representatives pressed the case for reintroducing post-study work in all subjects, rather than just in STEM disciplines.
The post-study work route was closed in April 2012. Now, overseas graduates from UK universities must have a job with a salary of at least £20,300 if they wish to stay in the country. However, there is an exemption to the salary threshold for those with PhDs, and Mr Cable has already mooted extending this to master’s graduates and those with first-class bachelor’s degrees.
Labour may also step up the pressure on the coalition with an alternative immigration policy to give greater scope for growing “education exports”.
Liam Byrne, the shadow universities, science and skills minister, says in this week’s Times Higher Education that UK universities are “losing market share” in terms of international students. It is “simply ridiculous” that students are included in the net migration target, he writes.