This May, the country will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. If we believe the old saying that a week in politics is a long time, then five months should be an age. But it doesn’t feel that way. Key politicians are already rushing to make themselves heard and setting out proposals that they want to see in party manifestos. Over the holiday period, Home Secretary Theresa May delivered, if you like, one of the first shots in the campaign but her proposal appears to have been brought down by ‘friendly fire’ from colleagues in her own party. And it’s a development that we at University Alliance wholeheartedly welcome.
The Home Secretary had proposed reviving a pledge from the 2010 manifesto that anybody entering Britain on a student visa should be required to leave the country when they graduate and apply for a new visa from their home country if they wanted to work in the UK. Her policy measure was attacked from all sides in the higher education and research ecosystem – from universities, from research and from businesses chiefs including Sir James Dyson. Today we learn that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has apparently stepped in to quash the idea, fearing it would damage not only our universities but our economy.
We want politicians to go further and pledge to re-introduce the two-year post-study work visa allowing qualified international graduates to stay in the UK to work for a limited time. This would lead to numerous benefits for our country – ensuring our universities maintain our market share in global higher education and enhance the UK’s higher education offer. These international students would fill crucial skills gaps and help our economy to grow. And once they return home, they help build vital global links for the future.
What Mrs May seems to overlook – which Mr Osborne, former Universities and Science Minister David Willetts and many others have grasped – is that higher education is now a global industry, and one that currently the UK has a significant stake in.
UK universities are a huge success story. Aside from being centres for learning, creativity and research, they are estimated to be worth £59 billion to the UK economy annually and are a major export earner. The annual contribution to the UK’s national income made by international students is estimated at £5.5 billion. Beyond this direct economic impact, international students studying in the UK create a global network of ‘ambassadors’ with an emotional bond or predisposition to trust and support UK and ‘Brand UK’. Britain is educating leaders around the world.
That’s why we should be trying to attract more international students and then encouraging them to stay and work in this country after their studies.
We can guess why the Home Secretary has made this suggestion, not least that several senior Tories are holding fast to their 2010 pledge on cutting net migration to tens of thousands. If we look at the latest ONS figures released in August last year, net migration has surged by 68,000 in the past year to 243,000. This is despite new immigration policies to cut the flow – including a squeeze on international students. But what we should realise here is the number of overseas students has remained stable at 177,000.
Even voters think that we should be removing students from the immigration statistics. A detailed study by British Future found that voters across the political spectrum believe that student migration benefits Britain. Overall, only a fifth of voters believe it makes sense to count students in the immigration statistics at all. And three-quarters are in favour of graduates being allowed to stay in the UK after they graduate, at least for a period of time.
International students already face rules implemented by the current government which are tougher than comparable countries – they can only stay when they graduate if they find a graduate-level job paying £24,000 a year. There are some who believe that the salary bands for graduate level jobs, which vary depending on the sector, have been set too high for regions outside London and the South East and for those organisations and companies that could most benefit and grow from this talent – such as small companies or tech start ups.
The UK needs to be much cleverer about how it secures its share of the international students market in the long term. Statements and policies from the Home Office have consistently chipped away at our market share. Most notably from India, where some of our members have seen as much as a 50% reduction in Indian students coming to study STEM.
Rather than boldly claiming our stake in the international higher education market, the recent statement from the Home Secretary to send non-EU students back to their countries of origin is perhaps the starkest and potentially most damaging yet.
It harms the UK’s reputation not only as a place that is open to students but also somewhere which attracts the most talented researchers in the world. This can only have a negative effect on the impact of our research because then the best will feel that they should go elsewhere – where they believe they are going to be wanted and welcomed.