Last month, Hobsons attended a joint conference between the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Regent’s University London surrounding student visas. The main themes covered included the administration of student visas and the processes surrounding obtaining one, the impact of UK student visa policy on the future of the UK knowledge economy, and the opinion of businesses on the post-graduation employment of international students. The conference was co-hosted by Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor of Regents University, also including a keynote speech from the Minister for Security and Immigration, James Brokenshire MP.
The conference brought together members of the Home Affairs Select Committee, UK government ministers and MPs, and representatives from business, foreign embassies, schools and universities, all of whose comments and questions were recorded and will be used to formulate a report which will help influence future debate on immigration and student visas. The resounding opinion was that International students are invaluable to the UK’s revenue, economy, pedagogy, research innovation, entrepreneurism and innovation. The discrepancy was found when it was asked if the UK are doing all they can to encourage and welcome international students to come and study at UK universities, and whether indeed the UK’s visa policy reflects public and sector opinion on the matter.
The UK is one of the most powerful intellectual powers, and has a knowledge economy in the sense that our universities and our higher education sector as a whole are highly regarded. A degree from a UK institution is highly sought-after by students across the globe. The international character of UK institutions is important in aiding this, since ‘international character’ contributes towards world rankings. This is seen in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which consider ‘international outlook,’ including diversity on campus and the ratio of international to domestic students, as an essential indicator and component of a university’s success on the world stage. There was a common theme amongst speakers during the conference, that if the UK is to maintain its prestigious reputation, and is to remain dominant key-player in the world’s academic rankings, it is essential that the UK holds its international character by offering a welcoming approach to international students.
Unfortunately, and particularly over the past year, this approach has been somewhat hindered, reflected by the decline in the number of Indian students choosing to study in the UK. Though it is true that this decline in the UK is not isolated, in that Australian institutions have seen a 40% decline, and there has been a 10% decline in Indian students choosing to study in the US, the 51% reduction in Indian students choosing to study at UK institutions is a particular cause for concern, as noted by Vivienne Stern, the Director of the UK Higher Education International Unit. It is not a like-for-like comparison, which begs the question, why has the HE sector in the UK been hit harder?
Vivienne Stern commented on the removal of the Post-Study Work Visa, and the impact this has had on the likelihood of international students choosing to study in the UK. It is not enough, in her view, to state that there’s an opportunity for work after graduating, and that student caps have been removed, but rather we need a visa environment which provides a welcoming reception. Offering an uncluttered message to students is essential in order that we take advantage of the opportunities the UK sector has, being in its position of high-opinion. An articulate Belarusian Regent’s University alumnus who is one of a handful of international graduates from a UK institution who obtained a Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) Visa following her graduation, took the stance that the visa-system is not welcoming to international students, and that international graduates are ultimately unable to make the contribution to society which they are both willing and capable of, due to visa restrictions. Kevin Korgba, another Regent’s University alumnus and the MD of ETK Group, commented that international students are being “scared-away,” causing the UK to lose money and talent as a result.
Despite this, James Brokenshire MP maintained in his keynote speech that the UK still provides an ‘excellent offer’ to international students and that the government needs to take action to protect genuine students and prevent the abuse of the immigration system. The main points to take away from The Minister for Immigration’s speech was that there was a need to strike the right balance between attracting the brightest and best students, and reducing the abuse of the immigration system.
The disparity between the government representative, and the opinions of employers, the sector, and international students, is indicative of the cluttered message currently offered by the UK in terms of visa policy and the welcome which is offered to international students. In our Beyond the Data report which surveyed 18,000 international students about the factors which affect their decisions when it comes to studying abroad, it was found that the country’s attitude towards international students was the third most important factor when they are considering which country to study in, after the quality of education compared to their home country, and the international recognition of qualifications. The not-so-open-armed approach of the UK is notably influenced by the government’s current visa policy; with international students being caught-up in efforts to bear down on immigration, there is a perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome students. The removal of the Post-Study Work Visa paths the way for Australia and Canada to overtake the UK in popularity for international students which, as the Director General of the Institute of Directors, Simon Walker, notes, is likely to be “damaging” to the country “in every sense.”
Ultimately, the central government has a role to play in communicating a welcoming message to international students, and immigration policy and practice must reflect this welcoming approach, rather than the ‘policing approach’ which appears to be the take on visa policy as it currently stands in the UK.
by Lucy Adams