As former Vice-Chancellor of Monash university in Australia, who now has the privilege of leading King’s College London, I can testify that British universities offer stiff competition in attracting the best international students. But the UK can’t take its position for granted.
I also have experience of Australia’s policy of restricting foreign student numbers in response to popular concerns about immigration – a policy that had to be rapidly reversed. Britain seems to be making the same mistake.
Over the past five years the UK Government has tried to tackle abuse of the student visa system and to ensure international graduates are taking only genuine graduate-level jobs. Some of these measures are needed, and I believe the Home Secretary when she insists that the Government welcomes legitimate students and is not intent on weakening our place in the international education market.
But the measures go too far and put the competitiveness of UK universities at risk. Our growth is constrained, and even stagnating, while demand for English-language higher education is growing strongly and the United States, Canada and Australia are liberalising their visa regimes to capture a bigger slice of the market.
We would do well to heed the lessons learned in Australia when a similar approach to the UK’s was taken in the recent past. By 2009, many Australian universities were recruiting a fifth to a third of their students from overseas, having been enthusiastically backed by Australian governments since the early 1990s. Then the federal Australian government, as part of an attempt to address public concerns about migration numbers, radically altered the student visa rules.
Study visas became harder to obtain, with longer processing times, more demanding financial requirements and little flexibility in the way rules were interpreted. Just as importantly, post-study work visas in Australia were mostly abolished. The changes, and the rhetoric that accompanied them, created a perception that international students were now unwelcome. Commencements at Australian universities by Indian students in 2010 dropped by 49 per cent in a single year, and overall undergraduate and postgraduate student visas granted fell by 10 per cent in 2009-10. The turnaround came when critical voices in Australian industry joined universities in drumming home the message that the changes were detrimental not just to universities, but to the economic health of Australian towns and cities.
In 2011 the Australian government commissioned a review and soon afterwards reversed prohibitive regulations. The key was the reintroduction of a two-year post-study work visa, ironically modelled on the UK’s rules at the time. By 2013 international student numbers were in a healthy position again.
Another big challenge for the UK is that the Home Office closed our post-study work visa scheme in 2012. This gave international graduates the opportunity to work for two years in the UK after graduation. Following the closure, international graduates now have a period of just four months after completing their course to find a graduate level job that will pay them a starting salary of £20,800, otherwise they must leave the country.
In many emerging market economies, being able to show you have spent a few years working in a graduate role for a UK employer such as an accountancy practice or IT firm before returning home can be a gold standard tool for getting ahead in your career more quickly.
The closure of the UK’s post-study work visa scheme has deterred prospective students from recruitment markets such as India and Nigeria from applying.
The Chancellor correctly argues that we are in a global race, in which we must hone our advantages and build networks for trade and long-term technological collaboration.
The UK’s international higher education market is conservatively estimated to generate £10 billion a year, and the UK ranks second only to the United States as the most popular and prestigious destination for international students.
This success pays off culturally, diplomatically and economically for the UK. Foreign students don’t just bring billions into the UK economy in fees, accommodation and off-campus spending. The UK’s leading universities have a strong track record of educating international students from undergraduate to PhD level who have gone on to build highly successful careers in business, science, politics, the arts and medicine.
Our universities have played a critical role in helping educate the entrepreneurs leaders and officials and now steering the future of growing economies around the world. We need to celebrate and build on this, not constrain our ability to compete.
Professor Edward Byrne AC is President & Principal of King’s College London
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