Archive for December, 2012

The UK and overseas students – time for a U-turn, before we drive off a cliff

December 9, 2012

The US mathematician Joel Spencer describes overseas students coming to the US as ‘the reverse of foreign aid.’ The US gives billions of dollars in aid to the developing world; on the other hand, countries such as China and India send many of their brightest and best to US universities, both for undergraduate and doctoral studies. As well as bringing in large fees for the universities, these students bring diverse skills and perspectives which enhance the learning of others, and spur the progress of research at the postgraduate and postdoctoral level. The most talented are often recruited by US firms, whose productivity they greatly enhance, contributing to the US economy and creating more jobs for others.

Strange as it may seem to some in the UK, Australia has recently made it easier for highly qualified overseas students to seek work in Australia after their graduation, believing that this make Australian universities more attractive in the highly competitive global market for overseas students.

The contrast with UK government policy could not be more striking.

‘Our tough new rules are now making a real difference, with a record 62% drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012, and overall falls in work visas, family numbers and people settling,’

Damien Green declared triumphantly in late May. Between March and April, the government had also comprehensively tightened visa restrictions for overseas students graduating in the UK. Most importantly, it abolished the post-study work visa, which allowed highly qualified international students to seek work in the UK for 2 years after graduating from a UK university. In August, the Home Office revoked the license of London Metropolitan University, after more than a quarter of the students it sampled were found not to have been granted leave to be in the UK. This left more than 2000 students (most of them legitimate) facing deportation.

The effect will be to significantly reduce the attractiveness of the UK to overseas students, unless something is done quickly. Why should we be worried about a drop in the number of high-calibre overseas students? First of all, up until now, overseas students have massively subsidized the education of UK students, often paying as much as £25,000 in tuition fees at Russell Group universities, and contributing an estimated £5 billion to the UK economy. Almost all of our universities rely on the income from overseas students to sustain their internationally high level of teaching and research, in the face of reduced government funding, and fewer private donations than in the US, for example. Moreover, overseas students greatly enrich the learning of students at UK universities, bringing a greater diversity of knowledge, skills and perspectives to the lecture room and laboratory. At the doctoral level and higher, the most talented are often at the forefront of breakthroughs in research, in health, sciences and other areas, providing long term technological benefits for the UK. Finally, a significant few return to their home countries to become key figures in politics and business, and their continued links with their counterparts in the UK continue to provide political and economic benefits, both for the UK and their home country.

It seems that, belatedly, the UK government has realized that it needs to convince the high-achieving overseas students that they are, after all, welcome. In the latest cabinet reshuffle, Damien Green was replaced by Mark Harper as Immigration Minister. The universities minister, David Willetts, is set to launch a global drive to ‘protect Britain’s reputation’ and spread the message that it remains open to students from overseas. He has also joined Nick Clegg in urging the government to remove overseas students from the total immigration figures they have promised to cut (‘to the tens of thousands’). However, the new Minister for Immigration, Mark Harper, advocates the continued inclusion of overseas students in the immigration total. This is a crucial issue: overseas students currently number more than 400,000, and if this is included in the government’s target of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands, a drastic reduction in overseas student recruitment must occur. The effect on our universities would be crippling, and the longer-term effect on business and innovation in the UK would be grave. The UK university sector represents one of the last truly competitive aspects of the UK economy; it is worth more than £40 billion per year. More, it provides UK businesses with the steady stream of high-calibre graduates which is truly vital for the UK’s economic recovery and success. The government must do all it can to maintain the UK’s ability to attract the brightest foreign students, necessary as they are to the success of our universities, and to the success of the economy as a whole.