UK international student strategy sets 600K recruitment target

Inclusion of hard target seen as a major win for sector, potentially shifting power away from Home Office

March 16, 2019
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The UK government’s new international education strategy sets a target to grow overseas higher education student numbers to 600,000 by 2030 – with sector figures viewing the inclusion of a hard target as a major win.

The joint strategy from the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade, published on 16 March, sets a path to growth that would amount to a 30 per cent increase on current international student numbers.

Universities UK International had lobbied for a hard target on student numbers growth to be included, as a way to send a clear, attention-grabbing signal of welcome from the UK to potential overseas students and to keep pace with global rivals, as Times Higher Education previously reported.

The Australian government announced in 2016 a target to increase its onshore international student numbers from 500,000 to 720,000 by 2025, while Canada and Germany have surpassed their targets for growth ahead of schedule.

The principle of setting a target is thought to have been the subject of controversy within the UK government.

The target plan may have been opposed by the Home Office, which has long resisted liberalisation of the overseas student visa regime. Thus the strategy may be a step towards shifting some of the balance of power on overseas students away from the Home Office.

The strategy commits to “closer working across government departments on international education policy and opportunities”, the DfE and DIT said.

The strategy also includes “extending the period of post-study leave for international student visas” - already announced in the immigration White Paper - and “considering how the visa process could be improved for applicants and supporting student employment”, the departments said.

Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, has told THE that he is planning amendments to the Immigration Bill that could pave the way for the return of two-year post-study work visas.

Supporters of the strategy in the sector also highlight the fact that it appears to include a “delivery mechanism” – with annual reporting on progress and the appointment of an “international education champion” to boost overseas activity and promote new partnerships. A high-profile member of the House of Lords would be a good fit for the post, some suggest.

The strategy also sets a target to boost income generated by international education by 75 per cent to £35 billion a year by 2030.

The government is desperate for ideas on how to boost the UK economy post-Brexit – which is likely to have focused minds when it came to the international education strategy.

Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said: “As we prepare to leave the EU, it is more important than ever to reach out to our global partners and maximise the potential of our best assets – that includes our education offer and the international students this attracts.”

The announcement comes after the government announced it would exempt PhD-level jobs from caps on the number of skilled worker visas granted each month, and that research periods spent outside the UK will no longer count against academics applying for settlement.

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