University provosts are worried that the government’s internal fights over immigration policy will lead to new restrictions on international students that could cost the country billions of pounds.
Despite strong opposition from ministers and officials across government, university leaders have been briefed that No 10 may side with the Home Office in supporting restrictions on international students applying to UK universities that could amount to “an act of economic self-harm.”
It is known that the Department of Education, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, and the Department of International Trade are all against the plan.
University of the United Kingdom (UUK) chief executive Vivienne Stern has informed vice chancellors that the government is “revisiting ways to reduce net migration,” with the fate of the graduate student work visa in the spotlight.
Since 2021, when the visa was introduced, a significant increase in student recruitment from India and Nigeria has been attributed to the visa’s provisions allowing international students to work for two years after graduation.
Professor Hugh Brady, president of Imperial College London, said that reducing the number of international students would be detrimental to universities and would have far-reaching consequences, like reducing the number of tourists allowed to visit the United Kingdom.
The debate over international students should not be reduced solely to financial considerations, as they contribute significantly more to our educational institutions and urban centres than just money. However, economically speaking, it makes no sense to reduce their numbers.
It has been estimated that the net benefit to the UK economy from just one group of international students is £25.9 billion. The government’s export strategy has set a target of £35 billion by the year 2030. Brady told the Guardian that they “fuel the economy, create jobs, and support livelihoods.”
Because of the IMF’s prediction that the UK economy will contract in 2023 and maintain the lowest growth among industrialised countries into 2024, the economic impact is likely to take on greater urgency.
With a 97.5% compliance rate, the highest of any visa category, Brady claimed that “overwhelmingly” most international students left the UK after graduation. Those who stayed did so legally.
Many STEM degree programmes would fold without the influx of international students. Brady warned that limiting enrollment of international students would hurt the United Kingdom’s ability to train workers in key industries.
Tourists come for a short time, bring their families, spend money, and then leave. Should we try to curb their population growth? Students from other countries tend to stay in one place for longer, often bringing family members with them. If we don’t want to restrict their population size, why bother?
A vice chancellor with knowledge of the talks said the outcome was “not clear,” citing disagreements within No. 10 and among ministers. However, the current climate is more perilous than I can recall in my lifetime. The vice-chancellor warned that this would be disastrous for the country’s economy, especially in areas where universities play a crucial role in driving development.
Home secretary Suella Braverman is rumoured to favour reducing the graduate work visa duration from two years to as little as six months. That would make other countries, like the United States and Canada, more appealing to prospective students than the United Kingdom. Despite Australia’s strict immigration policy, international students are permitted to stay and work for up to four years after graduation.
It is also being considered to restrict the number of international students’ spouses and children who are permitted to accompany them to the country, as well as to eliminate the option for students to change their visa status from one of study to one of work.
Since learning of the Home Office’s plans to implement changes to decrease the country’s net migration numbers, Universities UK has been “in constant conversation with officials across several departments,” the organisation says. The protection of the graduate work visa has been the primary target of its efforts.
Stern informed UUK members last week that no decisions had been made and that talks between No. 10 and government departments were “ongoing.”
As one official put it, “We keep all our immigration policies under constant review to ensure they best serve the country and reflect the public’s priorities.”
Executive Director of the Russell Group of Research Universities (which includes Manchester and University College London) Tim Bradshaw has said, “Introducing new restrictions on international students and their dependents risks damaging UK’s prospects for economic growth, with impact felt across the whole country.”
They commissioned an economic study which concluded that each international student brings in £132,000, totaling an average of £40 million per year for each parliamentary constituency.