EU referendum: The Government’s policies towards international students have fuelled the Brexit campaign

‘Whether we stay or go, the Government has to wake up to the damage its policy and rhetoric is doing to our £17.5 billion education export industry’

 

(Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
(Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

The Government may have shot itself in the foot when it comes to the upcoming referendum. Its policy of including international students in net migration targets - despite the fact they are only here temporarily - has stoked sensitivity towards immigration, which risks playing a major part in the nation’s decision on our membership of the EU.

The reality, though, is that non-EU students are an ‘easy target’ for the Government when it comes to trying to meet their pledge to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. Students have seen visa regulations constantly tightened, the removal of the post-study work visa in 2012, and been subjected to a draconian regime that saw nearly 30,000 students deported or refused entry since 2014 by the Home Office for supposedly ‘cheating’ on English tests. This last decision has recently been criticised by the Home Affairs Committee for relying on “questionable or insufficient evidence.”

This crackdown is justified by the Government, quoting questionable data that suggests many international students illegally overstay their visas. The reality is that entry to the UK as an international student is becoming increasingly difficult, to the extent that those looking to illegally settle in the UK would be mad to try the costly and lengthy student visa method.

Overseas students come here to gain an education, and an expensive one at that. Not benefits. Ironically, there is mounting evidence the data used by the Government to estimate net numbers of students supposedly remaining in the UK may have been systematically overestimated, and a report on this is due to be published in the near future.

Inevitably, Government policy has had a negative impact on the reputation of the UK as a leading international education destination. The most recent ONS migration statistics have revealed long-term immigration to the UK for study is at its lowest since December 2007. This is despite the fact that, according to a study from strategy consultancy, Parthenon-EY, global demand for HE has grown by over 60 per cent in the same period.

Whilst competitors, such as Australia, have launched a ten-year strategy for increasing international student enrolment - with the aim of attracting 720,000 enrollees by 2025 - the UK’s ambitions are looking decidedly slack. Last Autumn, Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to recruit an additional 55,000 students by 2020. However, the Government has yet to demonstrate how it will achieve this unambitious target.

Further research from Parthenon-EY suggests the total cost to the economy of declining international student numbers over the last five years - as a direct result of Government policy - is a huge £9 billion. It is also estimated that for every 1,000 international students, 600 local jobs, in both academia and the local economy, are supported - jobs that are now at risk from declining student numbers.

Clearly, international students bring enormous benefits to the economy and their local communities, not to mention the social and soft power gains resulting from educating future foreign leaders of industry and business. Our competitors, from Australia to Canada and the US, have recognised their value and are taking measures to compete in the increasingly crowded global market. Canada actually overtook the UK as an undergraduate destination last year, and Australia is predicted to do the same within a decade.

A new all-party parliamentary group for international students was formed last month to promote the international student agenda, and the Government would do well to heed its recommendations. Whether we leave or remain within the EU, the Government has to wake up to the damage its policy and rhetoric is doing to our £17.5 billion education export industry - the fifth largest services export sector, and the second largest contributor to our balance of payments.

James Pitman is managing director of higher education UK and Europe at Study Group

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