James Pitman, Managing Director of Study Group, argues that the UK must capitalise on restrictive measures implemented against international students in the U.S. and Australia or the economy could lose £20 billion plus net contribution
Britain’s two main competitors in the English-speaking international study market, the US and Australia, have both made major missteps in recent years. Australia has fully closed its borders, including to international students, and restrictions are likely to continue into 2021. The Trump administration in the US, meanwhile, has implemented immigration policies that target international students while tensions with China continue to increase.
Britain’s HE sector is, of course, not without challenges of its own. The impending exit from the EU and the country’s imperfect handling of the coronavirus have created doubts about the value and safety of studying here, yet with careful policy and messaging, Britain could secure its place as the pinnacle of international study destinations.
This inflexion point in international student policy will be critical, and the country must make the most of it to secure the students’ significant contribution to universities’ research programmes as well as the UK’s economy and culture for the years ahead.
Make the COVID concessions permanent
The government has made some positive adjustments to policies on recognising distance learning and student visas during the pandemic. Under these temporary rules, the government won’t punish students who aren’t able to leave the country by the time their visa expires. The regulations also recognise online learning as contributing towards the hourly learning quotas for student visas.
There has been no evidence that these changes have been detrimental in any way, and they create a far more hospitable environment for international students, so the government should permanently write these measures into law. Adapting visa restrictions would produce a more cost-effective visa process wherein extensions could be administered domestically, which would provide students with additional flexibility and alleviate anxiety.
Further visa improvements
The government already committed to a re-evaluation of the visa path with the goal of improving the journey for students in their 2019 International Education Strategy, and this is the perfect opportunity to implement these changes. In addition to greater flexibility for students, the government should also consider opening up some components of visa processing to trusted providers as a way to reduce costs and provide a faster process for students. In addition, the idea of a single study visa to cover all stages of the student journey has obvious attractions for all stakeholders.
The government has moved ahead with the two-year post-study work visa, and it has been welcomed by the industry and students alike. However, there is potential to go further. To achieve the government’s ambitious target of exporting £35 billion in education by 2030 and fully collect on the economic benefits new graduates provide, the government should double the post-study work visa period to four years.
A four-year post-study work visa is broadly supported by industry leaders and former universities minister Jo Johnson. Such a move offers unalloyed benefit to students, as well as to the country at large. Amanda Solloway, Minister for Science, Research & Innovation, has also recently emphasised the fundamental contribution international students make to university research programmes. What’s more, average tax and National Insurance payments from every cohort of international students who remain in the UK to work after their studies amount to over £3 billion annually, to say nothing of the value of international students starting businesses and participating in British companies.
A multifaceted, cross-departmental approach
To realise the government’s International Education Strategy goals of increasing education exports, Britain must adopt a renewed, cross-departmental focus on recruitment and the student experience. This would involve collaboration between the DfE, DIT and the Home Office, among other agencies and stakeholders, but it is a worthwhile undertaking. Clear, streamlined and generous policies – as well as an emphasis on international study in bi- and multilateral agreements – will show confidence to students facing a world of uncertainty.
The expense and complexity of changing the visa process and revising the international student route are undoubtedly significant, but the moment calls for bold action. If Britain unambiguously embraces international students while competitor nations waver, it will cement the UK as the premier study destination for years to come.