The Government likes to suggest that its post-Brexit settlement will lead to a Britain which is more open to the rest of the world. This is a dubious claim, and nowhere is this clearer than in its policy towards international students.
The most recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that the total number of new international student has fallen steadily. In the 12 months to September 2011 246,000 international students arrived in the UK but this fell to 163,000 by June 2016. This is a direct result of Government policy while Theresa May was Home Secretary, as she announced a series of clampdowns on overseas enrolment. There are no winners in this situation. Not international students, and certainly not the British public.
The policy of including international students in the total immigration data and then subjecting them to the same irrational net migration target is completely counter-productive. The Department of BIS estimates that the economic value of the contribution from international students was £14 billion in 2014/15 and that it is set to rise to £26 billion to 2025.
International students enrich us all. Reducing their numbers makes us poorer.
This purely factual point seems to be contentious, so it is worth spelling out. Technically, the income from international students resident here counts as exports. International students pay far higher fees to universities and colleges than UK-born students. As such, they are providing a subsidy to us all for UK higher education spending. In addition, both the students themselves and any friends and family who visit them also spend money here, boosting our incomes, adding jobs.
The benefits that international students offer are far wider than this narrow, but substantial increase in revenue. They enrich us socially and culturally too. Some of them also ask to stay on, and make an important contribution to our living standards. The NHS is just one sector which would collapse without the contribution of overseas students who come here to study and stay on to work.
The current Home Secretary and her predecessor act as if international students are a drain on the British economy and British society. It has been argued that there were large numbers of international students who overstayed their visas and so contributed to the breach of their immigration target. Both these claims are false.
This hostile rhetorical campaign has been supplemented with legal cases against international students, the most recent of which collapsed in the Appeal Court despite the Home Office evidence.
Most students return home after study. In 2014/15 under 6,000 students applied for a Tier 2 visa, applicable to non-EU students who wish to work here. This actually may be too few for the overall needs of the economy, teaching institutions, the NHS and others. An unpublished report from the Home Office, drafted when Theresa May was Home Secretary, showed that the number of student overstayers is tiny, just 1% of the total, approximately 1,500. This makes no significant impact on the total immigration numbers.
A number of stakeholders are opposed to the clampdown on overseas students, including Universities UK, the teaching unions, the National Union of Students, and many local authorities where education is a much-needed growth industry. Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson both seem to disagree with the Prime Minister and have asked for international students to be removed from the Home Office immigration target.
International students benefit us all. We should be trying to attract more of them, not driving them away.