By Ruth-Grove White (MRN)
We are getting to the first anniversary – in March – when the government commenced its policy of squeezing international student numbers as a part of its effort to bring net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ mark.
At the time the All-Party Group on Migration predicted that this would produce a negative impact on a sector which, up to this point, had enjoyed great success in competing for custom in overseas markets. The value of international students business to the UK economy has been calculated by the British Council in 2007 to be £8.5 billion a year, made up of fees to colleges and off-campus spending. Even the government’s own impact assessment had estimated that the new policy created the risk of a loss amounting to £2.44 billion of these revenues over a four year period.
One year on and we are beginning to get a better idea of what the impact has been and who is being asked to bear the biggest costs. As difficult as things have been in these first 12 months, the data evidence which is beginning to come through suggests that there is even more pain further down the line.
Yet on the big headline figures, concerning the actual number of students arriving in the UK, the policy, at least in the first phase, doesn’t appear to have pushed totals downwards. Early signs coming from the Home Office suggest that there has even been a 6% increase in the number of approved visa applications over the past year. Even so, this hike has been achieved despite a 14% decrease in the number of applications made, indicating that a longer-term trend in numbers might prove to be downwards.
But for now the figures are being heralded as a success story by the department responsible for immigration control. Their claim is that the new policy embodies a clearer message as to the sort of student the UK wants to bring into the country. The ratio of successful to unsuccessful applications has increased in favour of the former because more high quality students have been encouraged to apply, and ‘lower quality’ applicants correspondently discouraged.
But whilst the Home Office is comfortable with the language of ‘the brightest and the best’ as the target group for educational services, the sector appears to see more problems looming on the horizon.
The new rules do not appear to have damaged the capacity of elite universities to compete for talented post-graduate students. But with seven of the top 20 universities recruiting international students coming from outside the ranks of the 20-odd members of the Russell Group some consideration should be given to the impacts which the new regulations are having on their ability to operate in a competitive market.
The evidence coming from one region, London, where international students contribute around £2.5 billion to the local economy each year, indicates that, despite the overall picture suggesting that things are holding up, conditions are becoming more difficult for a large group of education providers.
A study by the University of East London provides evidence of falling numbers of international students in all but one of the capital city’s institutions. A reason for this appears to be that London colleges have been particularly orientated to the India student market, with a sizeable additional stream also coming from Nigeria. In the recent past young people from these countries have relied on access to employment opportunities to support the cost of their studies and the indication that these will be increasingly wound down is damaging the attractiveness of higher education in the UK.
The UK has also chosen an unpropitious moment to restrict employment to its international student communities. From amongst nine other large players in the provision of education services, ranging from the United States, France, Germany, Hong Kong and Australia, all permit students to work during term time and also operate either a post-study work schemes or privileged access to work permits for graduates of their national universities. Six of these countries have changed or are in the process of changing their student visa arrangements, and all in the direction of greater liberalisation. The UK is alone in adopting more stringent rules on studying and working at this point in time.
Changes and uncertainty
Other messages bubble up from the student and prospective student coalface on just how difficult it is becoming to live within the frequently changing rules the UK imposes on those from abroad.
In a blog on her experiences at a university in Glasgow, one student writing on the Migrants Rights Scotland website reports that:
Constant changes to regulations also make things extremely disorganized and confusing to incoming and current overseas students, making the process extremely frustrating for many.
She goes on to say that;
…the UK should also consider that by issuing these new regulations and applying these new rules, the UK might struggle on the international front. The UK is seemingly ‘hostile’ towards overseas students by not only making it more difficult for students to obtain visas, but also, as stated above, limiting the work they can do whilst studying here, the time they have to study, and also the time they have after their period of study. Overseas students might find it not only easier but also more beneficial if they went to another country that allowed them time to work during their study, more time to do their studies, and also more time after their University study to find work. Countries like Australia or the United States, countries that offer quality education comparable to the United Kingdom, may start looking more attractive to these students.
One year into its new policies there is enough evidence accumulating to suggest that, if not all, then at least a sizeable proportion of UK educational institutions are going to find it increasingly difficult to recruit international students at the rates which have supported their development plans in the recent past.
Neither should be presume that the pain will stop with the educational sector. It is clear that the years spent studying play a big role in establishing the contacts and networks which support people through their subsequent professional and business careers.
It is not just a revenue stream for UK further and higher education which is being placed in jeopardy by the new system the government is putting in place, but quite probably the likelihood that much larger parts of the economy will be able to modernise and forge ahead as a result of the deliberate weakening of the organic connections with international markets and communities which migration makes possible.