In the time it’s taken for the Government to commission and finish a report into the impact of international students in the UK, Australia overtook us as an international study destination. Research from UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education indicates that we’ve fallen from second to third place worldwide.
Higher education (HE) is one of the UK economy’s crown jewels – and international students drive much of its success. Their (relatively high) tuition fees financially support our world-class institutions and world class research; they contribute an estimated £25bn via direct and indirect spending; and perhaps most importantly of all, they bolster our soft power.
So when Home Office statistics show there’s been a 22% decrease in visas granted for long-term study (12 months plus) since 2010, it’s cause for concern.
In a post-Brexit environment, there’s a real opportunity to build HE as an export for the future – at the very least, reclaim our place in the top two most popular destinations for international students, and instigate a long-term initiative to further increase the number of students we educate.
The post-study work visa once allowed international students to remain for two years, they now have only four months to find work. And this was despite a national consultation in 2011 on the student immigration system, where only 6% of respondents agreed with that specific course of action.
Compared with Canada, the US, Australia, Germany, Ireland, and New Zealand, the UK offers graduates the least breathing room – and at 0.7% over three years, it also boasts the lowest growth. Australia and Canada, which offer two to four years and up to three years respectively, demonstrated considerably higher growth rates (18% and 26.9%) according to the recent UK report into student mobility.
In Australia’s case, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always this welcoming to international students: the Rudd-Gillard government believed that migrants were using the education system as a loophole to gain permanent residency, and so tightened rules and requirements related to international students.
Thankfully for Australia, it didn’t last. The succeeding government did a reverse-ferret and more: not only did it relax restrictions, but it made a considerable investment in its HE sector – benchmarking it, improving it, and eventually seeing 15% year-on-year growth.
The UK should, as I recently stated in the evidence I submitted to the Migration Advisory Committee, follow suit: the Government should commit to a growth target, the ONS should track education exports monthly and together with the sector should measure the UK’s offering against those of competitor countries in any category that could influence its attractiveness to international students. A joint cross-sector body that can enable swift responses to changes in the global marketplace would also go some way towards improving the competitiveness and agility of UK HE.
But the immediate priority should be relaxing restrictions for international graduates seeking employment, so that they can contribute their newly-acquired skills to our economy and economic productivity, particularly in STEM sectors. Four months is simply not enough time, and as we’ve shown, there’s a strong correlation between post-study work options and sectoral growth.
Australia is a case study in the pitfalls of a closed and restrictive HE system – and the benefits of an open, flexible, and welcoming one. To reclaim the educational Ashes, we should try to beat them at their own game.