The chair of the Russell Group has warned that immigration “rhetoric” in the UK is damaging universities’ ability to attract overseas students.
Sir David Eastwood, the University of Birmingham vice-chancellor, part of a delegation to India this week on a government visit, also said that UK universities should focus on “mature, partnership relations” overseas rather than simply on student recruitment.
Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, meanwhile said he would use the trip to “clarify some of the misunderstandings” about the UK’s immigration policy.
UK universities have seen a dramatic fall in Indian student numbers, which many in the sector attribute to the government’s decision in 2012 to abolish post-study work visas.
Sir David said that Birmingham had “bucked that trend”, with Indian student numbers at the institution “up 5 per cent this year”.
But asked if government immigration policy was to blame for the fall in Indian student numbers more generally, Sir David said post-study work visas were an issue “and we need to move towards a more permissive position there”.
“In terms of the realities for study, it’s not more difficult to get a visa to study in the UK than, say, in Australia. But we haven’t been helped by some of the rhetoric which surrounds our visa position, as distinct from the reality.”
He said that it was also important for UK universities to talk “about partnership, about development”, not just recruitment.
Mr Clark was expected to announce collaboration agreements for education and science during the three-day visit, and to give a speech to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry that would “address some of the concerns” about government policy.
He told Times Higher Education that stricter visa rules were not an obstacle to post-study work, arguing that Indian students who had found a reasonably paid job would find it “straightforward” to stay in the UK.
“There may be a perception that that’s difficult and uncertain, but I want to send a message that they can, with confidence, come and expect to work afterwards,” he added.
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