A new government education export strategy and a backbench rebellion in Parliament are now seen as the best chances for UK universities to secure a more welcoming environment for overseas students, as rival nations highlight how Theresa May’s restrictions may have contributed to their growing international recruitment.
With the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations to the UK government viewed largely as a major disappointment because they reject the return of post-study work visas or the removal of students from the net migration target, the sector’s focus is now switching to the next opportunities for reform.
The Department for Education and the Department for International Trade’s joint strategy on international students and education exports is seen by some as potentially setting a path to growth in recruitment numbers. It is thought that a draft of the strategy may have been produced and that the final document could be published in January.
A government spokeswoman said in a joint statement from the two departments that the MAC report made clear that “international students offer a positive economic benefit to the UK”.
She said: “We are welcoming a record number of international students to the UK, who enrich our campuses and the experience of our students, facilitating institutional partnerships and adding to the UK’s impressive research capacity. Ministers will continue to review the UK’s position on this issue.”
However, others think the DfE and DIT strategy is unlikely to offer a sufficient counterweight to the Home Office’s dominance on international student policy.
Meanwhile, another potential opportunity was signalled as Conservative backbencher Nicky Morgan – sacked by Ms May as education secretary – suggested last week that there could be an amendment on overseas students tabled to the government’s forthcoming bill on the post-Brexit immigration regime, telling a sector audience to “keep thinking about the parliamentary arithmetic and, you never know, we may well get somewhere”.
An amendment to draft higher education legislation, to withdraw students from the net migrant target, was passed last year by the Lords, but failed to make it onto the statute book after government pressure.
However, some fear that another amendment on the same topic, even if passed, would leave the government feeling that it did not need to make any further, more fundamental changes to increase international student numbers. Ms Morgan signalled that she was open to ideas on what the “simple ask” forming the amendment should be.
Were the UK to shift to a more open position it would mark the end of a period, coinciding with Ms May’s stance on overseas students as home secretary and then prime minister, in which the nation’s market share has declined while rivals have accelerated.
Alex Usher, president of Canadian consultancy firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, said that, since the Conservatives came into office in the UK in 2010, “revenues from international students at Canadian universities and colleges have increased [over the duration of that period] by roughly C$2 billion [£1.2 billion] per year”.
While it was “possible all of that increase would have occurred even without Theresa May’s bizarre insistence on including international students in the immigration totals”, a “low-ball estimate” of the impact of her policies accounting for 10 per cent of Canadian growth “still amounts to nearly C$1 billion over eight years”.
Mr Usher added: “Those funds are welcome in Canada, and they have certainly helped institutions stave off cuts during a time of government spending restraint.”
Phil Honeywood, chief executive officer of the International Education Association of Australia, highlighted how Australia had adopted a post-study work visa system at the same time that the UK abolished it, in 2012.
Australia is now poised to overtake the UK as the second most popular global destination for international students.
“We will never know to what extent many of these students would have originally intended to enrol in UK education institutions,” Mr Honeywood added.
Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said the key issues for the UK now are post-study work visas and “reducing barriers” in the visa system, and, with the post-Brexit immigration White Paper aiming to provide “an opportunity to reshape the immigration system”, it “clearly would include” the potential for these changes on overseas students.
Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said that she felt the MAC “miss[ed] the point” on post-study work. She said the inclusion of students in the target to reduce net migration “created a disincentive to growth which drove multiple policy changes which had the combined effect of making the UK appear less attractive”.
She added: “We need policies to support growth, not frustrate it.”