Education is an area where the UK has a considerable global reach. Our historic ties to countries across the world, coupled with the outstanding calibre of our universities and schools, has created a flourishing international education sector. Although this part of the economy incorporates many different types of learning, it is  underpinned by a longstanding tradition of students coming in from abroad to learn in the UK.

This brings a range of benefits. The Higher Education Policy Institute estimates that International Students contributed as much as £20 Billion to the UK last year. Analysis also shows that, far from taking opportunities away from the native-born population, those international graduates who find employment in the UK typically do so in sectors that suffer from acute skills shortages.

But the advantages go beyond just financial value. Indeed, it is estimated that as many 58 world leaders have received an education in the UK, more than in anywhere else in the world. This provides an invaluable source of soft power in our diplomatic dealings with other nations.

These figures are a testament to the long running success of the UK in the field of international education. But after many years of leading the world in this area, I fear that we are in danger of falling behind our competitors. It was for this reason that I tabled and led a Westminster Hall Debate on this subject last week.

Our failure to keep up with other countries is backed up by statistics. Whilst it is true that we have seen a 3% increase in the number of international students coming to the UK over the last decade, this figure has been dwarfed by the exponential increases that have been seen in other English-speaking countries. In this period, the USA has cemented its status as the world’s number one destination for international students, with an increase of 40%, whilst Australia, which has seen a 45% rise, is largely believed to have recently overtaken the UK to move into second place, with Canada now only narrowly behind.

This trend is a wholly avoidable one that has come about in large part because of poor policy decisions by the government. A series of reforms to the visa system that were made in 2012 by Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, have been particularly harmful. These measures aimed to reduce abuse of the immigration system by those who claimed to be international students, and included measures such as tougher entrance criteria, limits on work entitlements, and the abolition of the post study work visa, which allowed two years to seek employment after students finished their course.

Not only have these changes made us a considerably less attractive destination for international students, they were aimed at tackling a problem that simply didn’t exist. The perception of widespread visa fraud was based on evidence from surveys which appeared to show a significant proportion of international students planning to overstay their visas- but official exit checks have subsequently found that this problem has been significantly inflated, and that the proportion of overstays were as low as 2.4% last year.

In light of this information, I believe that there is a strong case for a fundamental change in our approach to International Students. The government’s new International Education Strategy, which was published this March, presented the government with a unique opportunity for us to do just that. But whilst it includes some encouraging steps forward, such as the reinstatement of the post-study work visa (albeit only for a shorter period of six months), for the most part,  it still largely fails to address the scale of the problems that are facing our international education sector.

This can be seen in the targets that it sets. The strategy sets out a 4% growth target for the sector for every year between now and 2030. Although this may sound like an ambitious statement of intent from the government, when you consider that Australia is enjoying a 17% growth rate every year, it becomes clear that this aim is woefully inadequate.

The strategy also outlines intent to increase the number of international students coming into the UK to 600,000 by 2030. This is welcome, but I can’t help but feel that this policy flies in the face of the government’s well publicised aim of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. Continuing to include overseas students in this target offers the government a very clear incentive to reduce the number which are granted visas, but if they view International Students as having a positive impact on the UK this is surely the opposite of what they want to achieve.

This contradictory policy is driven by a compulsive desire on the part of this government to bring immigration down no matter the cost. Not only does this risk undermining our position as a world leader in education, it is also based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of public attitudes. Whilst there is good evidence to say that the public want to see a reduction in the number of people coming into country, polling also indicates that they recognise the positive contribution that specific groups can make to our economy. In fact, surveys have shown that there is clear majority support for relaxing our current visa regime for international students.

The strategy also fails to address some very fundamental challenges that Brexit will pose for the International Education Sector. It talks of using our ability to strike our own trade deals to boost international education, but this ignores two vital points. The first is that our exit from the EU is likely to cause a downturn in the number of EU students coming to our shores, particularly if, as is widely reported, the government intends to subject these students to the same fees regime as other international students, which will mean that they facing having to pay up to £18k a year in fees. Needless to say, this is extremely likely to bring about a drop in the number of enrolments from EU nationals, and it is far from clear that these losses can be recovered by boosting the number of international students coming in from further afield, as the government has so far resisted calls to relax the admission process for students from non-EU countries.

India provides a good case study for this. As a large economy with strong linguistic and historical ties with the UK, it would seem like an ideal partner for us to strike a free trade agreement with after Brexit.  But over recent years, attempts that the government has made to strengthen our economic ties have been consistently undermined by refusals to relax our visa regime to allow more international students and skilled professionals into the UK. This will likely be a key demand for India in any future trade deal, and unless we show greater flexibility on this issue, I fear we could lose out on the twin benefits of increased trade, and of more Indian students coming in to contribute to our economy, all in service of an arbitrary migration target that does not take into account the unique benefits that groups such as international students can bring to the UK.

It is clear that we need a more radical approach to this issue if we are to attract the best and brightest students to our shores in future. I have been very much encouraged by the level of the support among MPs for an amendment to the Immigration Bill that is current making its way through parliament, which would take international student numbers out of the net migration target, and reintroduce a two-year post-study work scheme for international students, so that they can put their skills they have developed in their studies to good use by filling the various skill shortage in our labour market.

By adopting more radical measures such as these, the government can make a strong statement to the rest of the world that Britain will remain an open and welcoming society after Brexit, as well as boosting our economy at the same time. But if we fail to take these steps, we risk falling behind our competitors, and losing our place as a world leader in international education, which has been such a valuable asset to the UK in the past.

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