Sixty-eight chancellors and chairs of Council of universities across the UK have today written to the prime minister calling on him to do more to support universities’ efforts to attract international students.
As well as pointing out the importance of these students culturally, academically and in terms of soft diplomacy, the letter points out that higher education exports are worth £7.9 billion to the UK economy. According to the government’s own projections, this figure could more than double in the next decade, and reach nearly £17 billion by 2025.
That’s a fantastic outlook – especially when few other areas of the economy are growing.
We need to export more to fast developing countries with massive potential markets and a rapidly growing middle class, such as India and China. Other UK industries are a bit behind the curve on this, exporting predominantly to Europe and Ireland. Not universities – at the moment they are established players in the higher education market and the UK risks losing that position at the top if we don’t watch out.
While we have worked constructively with government to eradicate abuse of the student visa route, universities are low-risk in immigration terms. We know that the vast majority of students come, study and leave. Those who remain after 5 years predominately apply for other categories of visas – that is, they are no longer on international student visas.
This makes the fact that the government counts international university students as permanent migrants all the more frustrating. Our major competitors – Australia, Canada and the US – don’t fall into this trap.
The government has a target to reduce the number of permanent migrants to ‘the tens of thousands’. They simply cannot achieve that without cutting into genuine international university student numbers. One solution is to remove international university students from net migration figures; another is to focus efforts on cracking down on bogus students and colleges. As an IPPR report claimed, ‘focusing more closely on bogus students and colleges would arguably have a larger impact on net migration, since bogus students are less likely to go home’.
Of course immigration is a big political hot-button issue. But growth is bigger.
We must get our priorities right.