The value of international students goes far beyond fees

How will new government immigration policies affect international students? Russ Thorne finds that universities report confusion from applicants and concern for our global reputation

Recent changes to immigration rules are causing concern for universities and prospective international students alike. New provisions include requiring students to have more savings on arrival and a review of the minimum salary for Tier 2 visas (the most common route for non-EU nationals to stay in the UK after graduation).

According to Dr Iain MacPhee, dean for international education at the Institute of Medical and Biomedical Education, St George’s, University of London, it’s still too early to gauge the true impact of the changes on student choice to study in the UK. However, there have been immediate consequences. “We are seeing more enquiries from students who are confused by the increasing complexities of the immigration rules,” he says.

The speed and enforcement of the changes is also affecting the way the UK is seen overseas, suggests James Richardson, director of international development at Sheffield Hallam University. “It gives the impression that the UK isn't very welcoming, especially compared to other countries like Australia and America, who are putting out an increasingly positive message about international students.”

In addition, the new rules are reinforcing the negative impression made by removing the post-study work visa (in 2012), Richardson continues. He argues that by discontinuing the visa, the perception created of the UK’s attitude to international students was “‘Come here, pay your fee and clear off. You have no value to the wider economy.’ These changes are not helping to counter that perception.”

Yet the presence of international students has immense cultural value to UK institutions, says Andrew Bird, head of international marketing and student recruitment at Bournemouth University. “To produce global citizens you need to provide a forum for that to happen, and where better than a university to support the leaders of tomorrow to interact and get to know each other in a supported environment?”

Indeed, a diverse cultural experience is exactly what UK students are looking for. “Increasingly they ask about the nationality mix on their course,” says Bird. “Not because they see cultural diversity as a negative but because they recognise the importance of meeting and working with people from different backgrounds in their future careers.”

Of course, the financial value of international students to universities is undeniable and Richardson acknowledges that it would be “remiss” of him to ignore it. But he urges prospective students to look beyond the restrictions and the headlines about the UK. “Our universities and the communities in which they’re located are ready to welcome them and support them. We value the contribution they bring to our university, it’s much more than the tuition fees: we wouldn’t be half the institution we are without our international students.”

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