Speaking to reporters at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong today, Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, warned that the changes could be “misinterpreted globally”.
While the Conservatives will want to show the UK’s right-leaning press that they have followed through on their manifesto commitment to reduce immigration, many fear that overseas students will be deterred from applying if the nation appears unwelcoming.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, sought to soothe worries ahead of the government’s response to the consultation on visa changes, which may be published next week.
Speaking at the British Council conference, he said the government was “committed to encouraging foreign students to come to study in our universities and colleges”.
The government is aiming to cut the number of non-European Union students coming to the UK to study courses below the degree level. But universities warn that this would stifle the flow of students who come to study A levels or English language courses and then stay on.
Mr Davidson said he was “hopeful” that the concerns would be heeded and “very encouraged” by Mr Willetts’ comments. He added that it was right to reduce the flow of “unqualified students coming to poor or non-existent colleges”.
But he called on the government to recognise that its visa announcement would be “an area of concern around the world”.
“If it is purely aimed at a domestic audience, the danger is it will be misinterpreted globally and that will damage our reputation,” he said.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, also discussed visas in his presentation at the conference.
In response to questions from the audience about students’ progression from language colleges to degree courses, the vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter said he was “confident – if not terribly confident – that we’ve won a victory on that”.
There appears to be a political divide in the coalition government over the visa changes. Mr Willetts and Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, are among the ministers concerned about their potential impact on educational institutions, while Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary, has taken a harder line.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Willetts addressed a question on how the visa reforms could affect overseas student numbers.
He said: “I think fewer than half the visas go to students coming to British universities. The rest are for private colleges, further education colleges, language schools and schools.”
He added that it would be “perfectly possible” to increase the number of overseas university students, even if overall numbers were decreased by tackling “abuse” in non-tertiary education.