The UK government should introduce a target for growing international student numbers and ease student visa rules at universities that focus recruitment on important markets, according to a report.
The recommendations from the Higher Education Commission, an independent body made up of leaders from the education and business sectors and MPs, came days after the long-awaited Migration Advisory Committee report on the impact of overseas students in the UK was published.
The review had been seen as an attempt to secure evidence for a shift in government policy towards a more open stance on international students. Senior sector figures suggested that potential changes arising from the assessment might include the return of post-study work visas and the removal of students from the net migration target, although the review disappointed many in the sector by failing to recommend these reforms.
The Higher Education Commission report, Staying Ahead: Are International Students Going Down Under?, drafted before the publication of the MAC report, says that “the time feels right politically and in terms of the mood of the nation to remove students from migration numbers and simplify the visa process”.
It calls for the government to set a target to grow international student recruitment and measure progress against the target, noting that, while the UK has long been the second most popular destination for overseas students (behind the US), it is being caught fast by other countries which have adopted more welcoming immigration regimes.
The report, which follows a 10-month inquiry co-chaired by Lord Norton of Louth and Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, also comments on the government’s Tier 4 pilot programme, which eases student visa rules for postgraduates at a select number of universities.
It says that “the focus on low visa refusal rates as the rationale” for allowing institutions to join the programme creates perverse incentives to narrow the diversity of recruitment.
The commission calls for the government to roll out an improved Tier 4 pilot, based on universities which recruit “from target countries on a new international student growth list”, rather than on “zero visa refusal rates”.
It says that the growth list should focus on countries that have the fastest-growing youth populations – including those that do not feature in the UK’s top 10 source nations, such as Ethiopia and Pakistan, and those that do feature but may be considered “high risk”.
Professor Marginson said that the report “makes the rational case for renewal of a welcoming stance towards prospective international students”, which is “now clearly in the interests of all parties – local communities that benefit, the national economy, the higher education institutions, the students and families, the government”.
Speaking before the publication of the MAC report, Professor Marginson said that “the time is right to advance a positive agenda on all forms of inward people movement, both temporary and permanent”.
Meanwhile, new data from the European Association for International Education has found that university staff in the UK are among the most negative in Europe about the impact of their countries’ national policies.
An overwhelming majority (81 per cent) of UK university staff surveyed said that immigration regulations were having a negative impact on their university’s internationalisation efforts – more than any other nation.
Almost half (45 per cent) of UK respondents said that national policies overall were having a negative impact, with the country trailing only Denmark (66 per cent) on this question, according to The EAIE Barometer: Internationalisation in Europe.