The government should look again at their reforms to student visas and introduce a bill to remove university-sponsored students from net migration data in the upcoming Queen’s speech, says professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of University of Hertfordshire.
After the latest disappointing GDP figures the Government’s collective mind will be focused on the economy. This is why the Government should look again at their reforms to student visas and introduce a bill to remove university-sponsored students from net migration data in the upcoming Queen’s speech
There aren’t many export industries where Britain is leading the way, but the international student market is one of them. Currently there are just under 300,000 international students enrolled at UK universities, contributing around £8 billion to the UK economy. In terms of market share this equates to just over 10% - second only to the US. But perhaps most importantly of all the international student market offers real growth potential. Research shows that export earnings from international students could reach £17 billion by 2025.
Billions in export earnings may be a little opaque, but on the ground in our towns and cities that means jobs – and lots of them. An independent case study looking at the economic impact from Exeter’s 4000 international students found that for every 10 international students, about six jobs were supported in the region. Instead of taking jobs international students create them.
So you would expect the Government to support and encourage such a successful industry in Britain – it is after all at the forefront of our export-led recovery.
And in fairness parts of the Government ‘get it’. At a recent conference David Willetts, for example, called on the sector to take advantage of this growing market. But elsewhere in Government this isn’t the case and that’s because international students are bizarrely included in immigration statistics (which are based on Office for National Statistics' International Passenger Survey).
I say bizarre because a Home Office study found that after five years, only 3 per cent of international students had settled in the UK – so the vast majority go home after studying here. But because the Coalition pledged to reduce immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands international students are being targeted.
Crudely, the Government can’t reduce immigration without reducing international students given the current methodology. So whilst last year’s reforms to clamp down on bogus colleges and fraudulent applicants were laudable, many of the changes to Tier 4 (student visas) were essentially designed to reduce international student numbers. They also came at a time when our competitor countries, such as Canada and Australia were liberalising their systems in an attempt to boost their market share.
Early analysis across the sector suggests that these reforms combined with a more open and welcoming policy environment elsewhere are having a negative impact on growth in applications and recruitment in UK universities.
Export earnings from international students could thrive as research has shown, but only if policy is supportive. The changes to Tier 4 and negative publicity surrounding them could do lasting damage to our economy, which is why the Government needs to revisit this agenda.
In my view, removing university-sponsored students from immigration statistics offers the Government a neat solution. This would, at a stroke, take international students away from the political debate about immigration - allowing us the space to grow this market.
Whichever way it can be achieved, I will support removing international students from immigration statistics but passing it through parliament - actually being part of the Queen’s speech itself – would be hugely beneficial.
It would be a signal to the world that we are open for business again. It would generate positive headlines in our target markets and offer confidence to students who want to study in the UK.
Opposition to this will say that the Government is simply moving the goalposts to suit their own ends, but when the goalposts are in the wrong place they need to be moved! And quite frankly, the Government’s future depends on a growing economy in 2015. Supporting the expansion of international students is one measure that will actually help the Government’s own survival.
We need more international students to help grow our economy and support jobs here in the UK, that’s why removing university-sponsored students from migration data should be in the Queen’s speech in May.