Government enquiry into international students misses opportunities, says English UK
11 September 2018

The Migration Advisory Committee's seven-month enquiry into international students has encouraged the Government and the education sector to work together on promoting the UK, and says there is scope to grow numbers, including beyond the HE sector.

However, the committee rejected the idea of removing students from the migration figures, because it could not "see a reliable method... If there is a problem with students in the net migration target, it is with the target itself rather than the inclusion of students in that target. Summarising migration policy through the net migration target may give the impression that the government seeks to reduce the net migration of all types of migrants including students."

Sarah Cooper, chief executive of English UK, is disappointed that the committee has not recommended either of the priorities in the association's submission: for students to be removed from the migration figures, and for EU students to retain visa-free access to the UK.

She is also disappointed that the committee did not appreciate the significance of ELT on the overall international student journey, but hopes government will recognise the contribution of the ELT sector when drafting future immigration rules, "and allow English language students to transfer directly to an undergraduate or postgraduate programme, without the inconvenience and cost of returning home to start the visa process all over again. We would love to see a comprehensive cross-departmental strategic approach to make UK international education globally competitive, recognising the length and complexity of the student journey."

She added: "While there are some limited positives to the MAC report, we believe it has missed opportunities to put the future of UK international education on a secure footing.

"Encouragement for the government to work with our sector is positive, as is the acknowledgement that mixed messages in the past have not helped. And the MAC recognises that there is scope for growth in international education and that the population largely does not see students in the same way as other migrants.

"But we share the disappointment of the rest of the sector that the MAC has not recommended that students be removed from the migration statistics, or for visa-free travel in future for EU students.

"While the committee acknowledges that leaving the EU may well present challenges for our sector, it limits its recommendations to a suggestion that the Government and the sector should continue to work together, with a hint that short stay students are unlikely to require visas and some limited movement on post-study work rights for Masters' and PhD students."

The MAC recommended some concessions on work rights for Masters' and PhD students, but no special treatment for EU students coming to the UK post-Brexit.

On visa rules, the report says there is no evidence suggesting change was necessary in ELT or independent centres. It acknowledges that the FE sector bore the brunt of post-2010 changes, and although it "was interested" in whether there was any scope for relaxing some of the existing rules without returning to past problems, it had found it very hard to collect information and suggested further research was necessary.

Main points from the MAC report

"There is no doubt that international students offer positive economic benefit, including cross-subsidising the education of domestic students and research… If the government's industrial strategy is to be a success it needs a vibrant higher education sector and it is impossible to imagine that without significant and strong recruitment of international students. The evidence suggests that, on balance, domestic students have more positive than negative views of how international students affect their education. There is no evidence international students adversely affect the wider communities in which they live."

"There is currently no cap on the numbers of international students able to come to the UK to study and we recommend it stays that way."

"What the government means and what many in the sector think the government means are not aligned. There is a risk this makes it harder for the sector and government to work together more closely to grow the number of international students; something both think desirable. The sector and government need to work in partnership to grow numbers; an appropriate migration regime is part of that but only a part."

"Many of the responses to the call for evidence argued that students should be taken out of the government's net migration target. None suggested a practical way in which this might be done and we cannot see a reliable method. Even if a method was found, it would be unlikely to make much difference to the net migration statistics because most students leave the country and the ones who do not have to be counted. If there is a problem with students in the net migration target, it is with the target itself rather than the inclusion of students in that target."

"The UK leaving the EU poses additional challenges to the sector. Our main competitors require a visa for all international students so it is not impossible for the sector to thrive even if EU students were brought within the non-EU student visa system. We do not, though, see any upside for the sector in leaving the EU: any barriers to student mobility are likely to have a negative impact."

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