The UK government’s latest plan to restrict overseas student visas will deter applicants and benefit rival nations, but its political focus on cutting immigration will override concerns about lost British export earnings, according to experts.
Amber Rudd, the country’s home secretary, said in her speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham on 4 October that the government will be “looking for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution”.
She added that the plans will be detailed in a consultation, expected this autumn, that will “look at what more we can do to support the best universities and those that stick to the rules, to attract the best talent, while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses”.
Theresa May’s government is continuing to pursue a goal of reducing net migration into the UK to the “tens of thousands”, which has led it to target non-EU student numbers. Net migration currently stands at 327,000.
India’s second-most widely read English-language newspaper, the Hindustan Times, reported on the plans, saying that they would “add to perceptions in countries such as India…that Britain is less welcoming for international students than competing countries such as Australia and Canada”.
Sir Keith Burnett, University of Sheffield vice-chancellor, said: “The home secretary’s speech is already being reported in countries such as India as a reason potential students should reconsider the UK as a study destination, and experience tells us that other nations keen to recruit these students are quick to take advantage of discouraging signals from the UK.”
He added there were “real concerns about messages on quality” being sent out to the world by Ms Rudd’s speech.
Income from non-EU student fees was £4 billion across UK universities in 2014-15, accounting for 12.2 per cent of their total income. Universities UK also estimates that non-EU students make a total £7 billion annual contribution to the British economy.
Simon Marginson, professor of international education and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, said that Brexit would likely mean a reduction in EU student numbers coming to the UK.
“But the government will want to cut numbers before that and the non-EU student category will bear the brunt of that as long as EU students retain freedom of entry,” he said.
He added: “Any reduction of international student numbers and revenues will be felt most harshly by universities positioned lower down in the status order of higher education, and in the local businesses and provincial cities and towns that service international education.
“We must face the fact that if the government is prepared to abandon the interests of the City of London, a more powerful constituency than higher education, then a cut in education export earnings of, say, £3 to £5 billion is unlikely to be a strong concern.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that “there must be a risk” that the Home Office will use the teaching excellence framework – under development by the Department for Education to assess teaching quality – “in some way” to judge universities for visa purposes.