A draconian visa system is having a disproportionate impact on middle and lower ranked universities. The 2015/16 Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) figures revealed that the overall number of non-EU students has fallen for the first time, by 0.5%. This is despite global demand for international education growing by 6% a year, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and our competitor countries such as Canada, Australia and US mostly growing at double digit rates.
However, falling international student numbers in the UK have not been evenly distributed. HESA data reveals significant declines in non-EU student numbers at lower ranked universities since 2010, including a 65 percent drop at the University of Teesside, 52 percent at the University of Staffordshire, and 40 percent at the University of Hull. Meanwhile, Oxford University and University College London have enjoyed increases of 20 percent and 73 percent respectively.
A growing disparity
This is detrimental - international students bring numerous economic benefits not only to the institutions they choose to study at, the domestic students that they study with, but also their local communities. Government figures from 2013 show that the average value of one international student in higher education, factoring in tuition fees and living expenses, is £21,000. Parthenon EY estimates that every 1,000 students create 600 jobs, 50 percent of which are in the local economy. The value of international students to the UK is incontrovertible.
The benefits of international students are therefore being concentrated in places like London, and elite university towns such as Oxford and Cambridge. A recent study from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) highlights this inequality even further. Oxford and Cambridge are estimated to make an additional £10m per year in fees post-Brexit, whilst universities from the Russell Group will receive an additional £3.3m a year on average. Lower ranked universities on the other hand could register an annual average loss of £100,000.
This disparity is the result of a Home Office that wants to "support our best universities...to attract the best talent ... while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". This kind of thinking is misguided, dangerous and damaging. Far from encouraging the UK to be an outward-facing, export-led economy, the government is doing real damage to local economies across the country by constraining our universities' ability to export.
Ideology vs. education
The government is actively resisting an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would require institutions to publish visa refusal rates. Such a requirement would demonstrate that the vast majority of institutions stay well within the rules, despite reports from Vice Chancellors of spurious reasons for visa rejections - including because one international student didn't know the library's opening hours. As Graham Galbraith, the Vice Chancellor for the University of Portsmouth, put it: "The Home Office does not want its policies to be troubled by knotty little things like evidence and data."
It is tough to disagree with his conclusion. Where international students are concerned, the government's ideological concerns trump educational, financial, and economic considerations. International students have always been important to the UK's economy and its soft power, with recent research showing 55 heads of state educated in the UK, and post-Brexit they will be more crucial than ever.
Around half of UK universities have lost international student numbers since 2010/11, totalling around 43,800 lost students and 70 affected institutions. If the government worked with the sector to recoup these numbers, based on Parthenon EY analysis and the government's own figures, it could potentially bring 24,000 jobs and £920 million of economic value to areas of the country that sorely need it.
If the government wishes to boost local economies, create jobs, sustain our world class HE sector and build an outward-looking 'global Britain', they should work to strengthen its foundations.