Cap on foreign students could hurt 'Global Britain' brand

The plan to restrict international students to elite universities could bankrupt many other universities that depend on income from them

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. — Reuters
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. — Reuters

Published: Sun 25 Dec 2022, 10:19 PM

Is Brexit an act of self-harm? There is growing evidence that the United Kingdom’s economy is shrinking after leaving the European Union, with polls suggesting that even those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum are having a rethink on its supposed benefits. The promise of ‘sunlit uplands’ is yet to materialise, so is the ability to control borders. Whenever the Office for National Statistics releases its annual migration figures, it provides another occasion to expound on the cross-party support on the need to cut immigration, and the latest release was no different: it showed a record net migration of 504,000, largely driven by arrivals from Ukraine, Hong Kong, international students and their dependents.

The response from No 10, Downing Street, was that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was considering a crackdown on international students bringing dependents and restricting admissions to courses in top universities. The 2019 Conservative party manifesto reiterated its objective to cut immigration.

Sunak’s official spokesperson said he was “fully committed” to bringing overall immigration levels down: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependents and low-quality degrees”; but no clarity is forthcoming yet on what constitutes ‘low-quality degrees’. It was a line similar to proposals being explored by home secretary Suella Braverman, who has previously complained about foreign students “bringing in family members who can piggyback on to their student visa” and “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.

Sunak’s plan soon provoked a strong response from stake-holders who want the UK to continue to welcome and increase the number of international students, insisting that curbing the UK’s offer to them would be an act of “economic self-harm”.

The plan is to restrict international students to elite universities or to those that rank high, which, critics say, could bankrupt many other universities that depend on income from international students. But the other aspect of the plan, to limit the number of dependents joining the students for the duration of course, is expected to find more support. International students at the undergraduate level are not allowed to bring a dependent, but students at post-graduate levels (MA, PhD) are allowed to bring dependents, whose latest figure has reportedly gone up from about 20,000 visas a year to about 70,000 or 80,000.

The issue of international students has long figured high in the discourse of immigration, which continues to be a sensitive issue. India and China are among the top countries that send students to UK universities. The numbers from India dwindled when the two-year post-study work visa was abolished in 2012, but the figures rose when it was restored in 2021.

There is a paradox at the core of the debate: international students are actively sought, indeed wooed, but they also come under focus whenever there is concern over rising immigration. Besides adding to research capacity and cultural value they bring, stake-holders also value them because they typically pay at least three times the course fee than domestic students, and also meet high living costs during the duration of courses, which not only boosts revenues of cash-strapped universities but also local economies.

There are high stakes in the multi-billion dollar global higher education sector, with the UK competing against United States, Canada, Australia and others to attract high fee paying students. According to a recent analysis by Universities UK — the umbrella organisation of all British universities — international students contribute nearly £26 billion annually to the UK economy, besides over £3 billion in tax revenues; their presence supports 206,000 jobs and provides an invaluable multi-cultural university experience for home students.

The government’s international education strategy aims to increase the value of what it calls ‘education exports’ to £35 billion per year and international student numbers to 6,00,000 per year by 2030; that figure has already been reached.

Sunak’s plan has been panned by senior Conservative leaders, including former education ministers such as David Willets, Justine Greening, Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore.

Domestic students are subsidised by international students, who also “massively” subsidise research and development in universities, says Skidmore.

Greening and 12 vice-chancellors responded to Sunak’s plan in a letter: “Reducing the number of international students could have a severe negative impact on Britain’s economy, productivity, and our world-leading universities…The obvious cultural contribution and enrichment of UK students’ learning experience is clear, as is the knowledge exchange and research contribution that international students bring to our renowned higher education sector…The reality is that overseas students pay significantly higher fees, which crucially cross-subsidises the education investment for domestic students”.

Universities UK notes that international students already face strict visa checks and must be able to prove their financial status to be able to come to the UK. For example, an international student bringing a spouse and two children under the age of 18 would need to evidence in excess of £30,500 just in order to apply to come to the UK. This figure is at the lower end of the spectrum, with those looking to study for longer, or live in London, or bringing significantly more dependents able to evidence tens of thousands more before making an application to come to the UK.

As Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, says, cutting international student numbers would run directly counter to the government’s strategy to rebuild the economy, given the huge financial contribution they make to every part of the country: “International students…are the source of almost 70% of our education export earnings. They sustain jobs in towns and cities up and down the country. They also bring enormous benefits to university campuses…Limiting international students would be an act of economic self-harm that would damage many parts of the country the government aims to make more prosperous”.

Besides opposition to Sunak’s plan from stake-holders, if implemented in 2023, it is also likely to figure in talks for free trade deals, besides not exactly helping the brand of ‘Global Britain’, particularly after Brexit, when there are other, large issues on the agenda. - The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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