THE BLOG

Open for Business, but Not for Study

16/02/2015 12:40 GMT | Updated 15/04/2015 10:59 BST

This week, Theresa May simplified the UK's visa system to demonstrate that "visitors are always welcome in the UK, whether they come for leisure or work." As she made her announcement, Boris Johnson was on a trade mission to the States, promoting London as a destination for business and students. Sadly, these two facts are not connected.

The new visitor visas represent a hard-fought victory for the performing arts community and CBI. But fans of the Home Secretary's pronouncements will not be surprised that student work-study visas do not form part of this simpler, more sensible visa system. Slowly, a crisis is emerging that is undermining the UK's reputation as a destination for international students.

UK universities train a very high proportion of the world's best graduates. This is not an accident, but the consequence of sustained policymaking. For many years, it was widely accepted in British policy that the brain drain should be made to operate in our favour. The benefits have been immense, ranging from the fees they pay and the money they spend in our country, through to the ideas they generate and the research they do, and the businesses that are built as a result.

Like many universities, UAL has strong links in the US with academic institutions, networks and alumni. This week, as Boris led his trade mission, we formalised strong networks of alumni and worked with New York Foundation of the Arts on an artist-in-residence exchange programme.

This sustained approach has built a considerable advantage. The UK is still the first place most people think of when considering study abroad. Research published this week by Google shows that London universities are the most searched-for option by US students thinking of higher education overseas, with UAL in the top 10. The arts make up six of their ten most searched-for subjects.

However, this advantage is being squandered by a visa regime which for some years has been profoundly unwelcoming to students. International student numbers have fallen as a result. Last year's Lords Commission on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths students concluded that this was due to "complicated rules, a constantly shifting immigration policy, expensive visas and insufficient time to seek work after study".

British universities attract US students for several reasons. Our universities are seen as outstanding. Our style of teaching gives undergraduates students the sort of autonomy and creative freedom which they might be given only at graduate level elsewhere. And we give a greater connection to industry: within art and design universities, students work on live, collaborative projects and are taught by lecturers who are also current business practitioners.

It's therefore not surprising that students across the world see London as the best place to lay the foundations for careers in the creative industries, one of our largest and fastest growing business sectors.

The marketization of higher education is an uncomfortable topic for many in the UK education sector. My own view is that higher education is both a market benefit and indisputably a public good, and a mixed approach is required. But we need to understand that when it comes to international students, their decision to study in the UK is made as a rational investment in a market context.

Theresa May's visa system simplifications aim to make it easier for people to do business in the UK. Students fall into that category. It's vital that her reforms are extended to those genuinely committed to coming to the UK to study or we will undo decades of good work.