The Home Office and immigration control lobbyists were celebrating earlier this month as the government edged closer to its target of reducing net-migration to less than 100,000. In the year to June 2012, 42,000 less overseas students arrived in the UK as in net-migration fell to 163,000 from 247,000 the year before, as measured by the Office of National Statistics.
Rejoicing at a job well done, the immigration minister Mark Harper said, "Our tough reforms are having an impact in all the right places". The chair of immigration pressure group MigrationWatch, Sir Andrew Green, went so far as to say that UK universities had been "crying wolf" over the impact of immigration policy on international recruitment, pointing to a 3 per cent increase in university-sponsored visas for non-EU nationals. However, the connection that MigrationWatch and much of the national press failed to make was that today's college and English language school students are tomorrow's university students, and sponsored visa applications for these institutions have fallen off a cliff - 62 per cent and 69 per cent respectively. Following a survey in 2009, Universities UK estimated that more than 40 per cent of all international students arrived at universities through pre-higher education providers. This number is likely to have increased which, combined with the ONS' numbers, hints at a catastrophe on the horizon.
Many of the students captured by the 3 per cent increase in university sponsored visa applications will already have been in the UK for two years or more, preparing for their time in the UK higher education system by studying GCSEs and A-Levels, often at great expense. The same is also true of the 9.6 per cent increase in university applications from non-EU nationals captured by Ucas in January. This cohort is too committed to turn back; having made the decision to pursue education in the UK they have been caught in the changing tide of immigration policy and visa regulations. However, once they pass through the system the true effect of immigration policy on the UK higher education sector will become clear.
Just to make it clear exactly how careless it would be to allow views such as MigrationWatch's or even Mr Harper's to go unchallenged, it is worth revisiting the many benefits of international students to the UK, which are especially compelling in the context of a sluggish economy. As far back as 2008/09, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills estimated the value of UK education exports to be £14.1 billion. More recently, Oxford Economics working with the University of Exeter established that the contribution of international students to the city's GDP would be £88.3m in 2011/12, supporting nearly 2,880 jobs. And, more recently, the same group produced a similar report this year with the University of Sheffield that concluded international students contributed £120m a year to that city's economy.
International higher education has also boosted the UK's 'soft-power' in diplomacy, commerce and culture. It has made the UK a nexus for global trade networks, which has allowed it to punch above its weight diplomatically and economically for decades now, as the world's future political and industrial leaders forged lasting connections with the country and with domestic students during their studies. It's hard to overestimate the long-term risk posed to the UK's international standing by surrendering this competitive advantage.
In light of this, it's no time for advocates of current immigration policy to be celebrating. But, on the other hand, neither is it time for UK universities to despair. They have some high profile friends. At various times, the voices supporting the removal of international students from the net-migration target's implications have included five select committees, Business Secretary Vince Cable, and Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
It is regrettable that David Cameron and the Home Office have each said in the last few weeks that international students will remain classified as immigrants, in line with the widely applied UN definition. Yet there is growing evidence that the government is alert to the critical nature of the situation. Look at David Cameron's recent trip to India accompanied by an entourage of industry and education heavy-hitters and government promises of some stability in terms of visa regulations.
Of course, abuse of the student visa system must be stamped out, but considering the importance of international education to the country's health it is far from crying wolf to highlight the potential damage that a clumsy government policy could do. The next challenge faced by UK universities in the recruitment of international students is the Home Office's plans to start interviewing more than 100,000 Tier 4 study visa applicants from April. During the pilot scheme, some interviews took nearly an hour. Where is the UKBA going to find these tens of thousands of skilled extra man hours? My colleagues' efforts to understand this have seen two UKBA Freedom of Information requests relating to staffing levels completely ignored, which does not bode well.
The border agency is already creaking under the strain of its workload, leading to lost passports, stranded students and separated families. On current form, can we reasonably expect it to be able to cope with this new interview process? The stakes are high. If it fails, further damage will be done to the UK's international education brand and yet more international students will be driven into the welcoming arms of our competitor nations.