In 2011-12, the UK attracted 435,235 international students; 70% of which were from outside of the European Union. This makes the UK the number two country globally for welcoming international students, and continues to keep the UK's educational institutions at the forefront of global knowledge and innovation.
Along with bringing a wealth of global learning, these international students also do not shy away from contributing to the UK economy. In fact, it was estimated that the UK generated an estimated £10.7 billion of export earnings from the higher education sector in 2011-12.
Whilst international students are in the UK, it's not just their universities and local areas that benefit either. They travel domestically, they have friends and family visit them from overseas, and they ultimately add value across the whole of the UK's economy.
Yet, in 2013-14 there were still only 435,495 international students in the UK, a static statistic from two years previous. When you couple this with the fact that the number of international students studying abroad globally is expected to rise from 4.7 million in 2011-12 to over 7 million in 2020, it's clear that the UK is doing something wrong in it's approach to welcoming these students to study.
International Students as a Net Migration Statistic
Currently, international students are classed by the UK government as immigrants due to the length of their stay.
As a result of this classification, they are included in the government's target net migration figures. This means that the number of international students in the UK is now actually at risk of being deliberately reduced to help the government avoid media headline grabbing statistics.
It's my belief, and that of 78% of people surveyed in a recent BritishFuture.org survey, that international students are not what is commonly recognised as immigrants to the UK.
Many cities, towns and businesses across the UK are built and defined on the spending power of international students. By virtue of their high spending power, they attract better services, shops, entertainment and transport to wherever they chose to make their local area.
When you couple this with the global knowledge that they bring to the UK education system and consider that these students will often go on to become industry leaders in their home countries and utilise their close-ties to the UK they developed whilst studying here, there are even more benefits than just the short-term economic boost.
A segment that brings in over £10 billion of export earnings whilst adding long-term value is a truly unique segment. It should be individually recognised and not at risk of falling under demand for net migration targets.
Launching Strategies to Attract More International Students to the UK
The UK is a hugely attractive destination for international students. Figures show that the number of non-EU international students choosing to come to the UK grew from 175,000 in 2007/8 to over 300,000 in 2012/13. With the previously illustrated economic value international students provide, it's abundantly clear that this has been a strong economic benefit for the UK in this period.
Furthermore, in 2011-12 it was shown in a UK government report that there were some 4.3 million "internationally mobile" students worldwide. This figure is expected to rise to over 7 million by 2020.
Yet, the UK international student population is currently static. Clearly this is a huge potential growth market for the UK economy, and one that we may be about to completely miss the boat on.
It's been widely stated that universities are identifying the additional visa legislation as one of the main causes for the halt in international student growth in the UK. By adding things like credibility interviews, limiting maximum length of study time and adding additional costs to the visa process, international students are being forced to jump through hoops to come to the UK. This visa structure must adapt if the UK hopes to continue to be a front-runner in the international student global marketplace.
Alongside this, the government should be proactively supporting Universities with direct funds to go overseas and attract this highly prized economic group. With countries like Australia seeing record numbers of international students, and 10% year over year increases in international students, clearly other countries are competing in this market, and the UK needs to step up.
International students should also be encouraged, and enabled to, stay in the UK after they have completed their studies. The UK should be aiming to retain these highly-skilled individuals, and one core solution to this is to make it simpler for them to stay after they graduate.
What Happens Next?
I strongly believe that international students need to be reclassified from migrants and that the government should adapt to support the attraction of this highly economically valuable segment.
My challenge to British politicians is to create sensible policies that differentiate between international students and other immigrants to maximise the benefit to the British economy.