‘Welcome students: The government should be doing all it can to attract high-calibre foreign students. Instead it is deterring them with tough visa rules based on false assumptions’ - The Times 13 October
I wonder whether, at the start of this month, the Home Secretary realised, when she made her remarks about international students at the Conservative Party conference, that they would generate such an avalanche of comment and criticism?
We, of course, put up our (factual) response the next day pointing out that some measures which she announced were already in place and that others could be really damaging to the UK.
The Times then featured a front page piece on Thursday 13th (plus a double page spread and this lead editorial) showing, according to their reports, that Home Office data now showed that no more than 1500 university students (or 1% of the total) typically overstay their visas compared with 90,000 or more which the government has sometimes claimed.
And why is this important? Well it seems to most of us that the government’s main reason for wanting to limit or reduce the numbers of students coming to the UK is that, if many stay on, then they increase net migration levels. But if it is true that they don’t, and don’t ‘abuse the system’, then surely, given their value to the UK, there can be no policy justification for introducing yet more restrictions?
That, of course is our view but it was very encouraging to hear so many voices adding to the debate and emphasizing the value and importance of international students:
- Our President, Lord Bilimoria, had a powerful opinion piece in The Times online.
- Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir Keith Burnett, wrote a cracking piece for Newsweek (‘It's time the U.K. realized just how important international students are to the future of the country’),
- Nottingham’s V-C gave his own ‘Five facts on international students’ in another Times feature last Saturday (‘Hostility is a turn-off for the brightest Indian students’)
- In yet another leader article that day The Times’ view was that ‘(The government) must reassure the next generation of potential students that obtaining visas to study in Britain will be easier, not harder, when the country has left the EU’
- On the controversial (and divisive) concept of ‘differentiation’ which we expect to see floated in the consultation (also mentioned in Amber Rudd’s speech at the Conservative Party conference), former Universities Minister, David Willetts, said in the Observer on Sunday ‘We do not say that the car industry should only sell Bentleys abroad not Minis. We do not say that they should only sell to drivers with an advanced motoring qualification. Higher education for overseas students is a legitimate transaction, selling a fantastic British service.’
- And there was more I understand in the FT, the Economist, Times Higher (I like Nick Hillman’s comment that if some courses are not good enough for foreign students then why are we allowing British students to do them!), the PIE News and doubtless elsewhere.
- And now most recently the Chancellor, Mr Hammond has now made his position clear that he supports students being taken out of the net migration statistics and is making the case that immigration should be controlled in such a way that protects the UK economy.
In fact rarely have I known a couple of weeks with so many strong and influential views being expressed by so many and so much positive coverage in the media that it’s tempting to think that all this must surely have some effect. We’ll see.
UUK/COMRES research report on the UK public’s perceptions
As powerful however may be not just what the education sector says but also what the general public think and, co-incidentally or not, it was fascinating to see this latest survey report. You may remember that there was one asking similar questions, done by British Futures, a couple of years ago but this one, with immigration so high on the agenda and peoples’ views potentially influenced by Brexit concerns and priorities, could be even more important.
And what did it show?
- Of those that expressed a view, 75% say they would like to see the same number, or more, international students in the UK
- Of those who expressed a view, 71% say they would support a policy to help boost growth by increasing overseas students, with only 7% saying they would strongly oppose such a policy. 25% of British adults did not express an opinion on this issue
- 91% think that international students should be able to stay and work in the UK for a period of time after they have completed their study
- Just 25% of leave and 23% of remain voters said that they think of international students as immigrants
- Of those that expressed a view, 81% agree that international students have a positive impact on local economies and towns in which they study
Essentially, as UUK say, ’Cutting international student numbers will not address the public’s immigration concerns’.
Education Sector Forum - and consultation
So, after all this, it will be really interesting to see what will in the end be in the promised Home Office consultation on future changes to the student visa system and what options they might put forward.
We may get some clues - but I rather guess only some clues - when we attend the Home Office’s Education Sector Forum meeting on Friday of next week. This, as you may know, has traditionally covered both policy and operational issues and included in its membership only a small number of representative bodies. But following some consultation with us and others the forum is now going to be split into two, meeting quarterly, with one covering Policy (only) and the other more detailed Operational/Compliance issues and opened up to c 15 sector bodies and interest groups.
This may then provide a wider forum for more organisations to express their views, which could be helpful, but once the consultation is formally launched (and assuming there is time) we plan to stage consultation events of our own with members, in various parts of the UK, so that we can all develop a common view on what is being proposed.
All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students
Another forum which we are actively supporting, which is co-chaired by our President and which could be influential is this relatively new APPG designed to help Parliamentarians better understand the international student landscape including both its current opportunities and challenges (and indeed all the concerns many of us have).
It will have two meetings in November, the first to hear from Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson following his visit to India next month (where there is of course huge potential but also where he may hear of extensive worries on visa issues) and then a second on International Students Day (17 November) when the group will meet with a range of international students and Education Attaches based in London – an opportunity for MPs and Lords to hear what foreign partners (many of them major scholarship sponsors) and individual students feel about the current system, possible future changes and all the associated rhetoric.
Finally this month and ‘closer to home’ - which we like to call ‘home’ though it may not be home for much longer as our landlord is forcing us to leave so that he can redevelop the building and so if anyone knows of or would like to offer office space for a dozen or so souls please let me know - a few points about some of our other activities:
- Primary Contacts should have just received what I think are really attractive and comprehensive reports on all of our student experience projects last year and anyone can now see copies or even download individual reports on our website.
- We were delighted to see the announcement about continued funding for EU students starting in 2017 and have updated our information on this.
- Our training programme has now started in earnest for the year with the first few events fully booked,
- Our Services and Representation Advisory Committee met this week and considered, amongst other issues,
- the progress we are making turning the printed Manual into an online resource for early next year,
- initial thoughts on how we might celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2018,
- a range of visa related issues including how Police Registration is currently operating and
- all the detailed activities over the last few months which (if anyone is interested) we put in this Secretariat Report for anyone to see.
- We are delighted to say that Heather Knight, currently International Student Advisor at London South Bank University will be joining our Advice and Training team in the middle of next month so we will once again be back up to full strength.
Which is a very good thing as I feel it is going to be a relatively busy winter season!
Dominic Scott, Dominic Scott, Chief Executive, UKCISA