21 October 2016

Foreign students are one of Britain’s greatest exports

By James Dobson

After the referendum result this summer, the Government signalled its intention to reduce the number of overseas students studying in the UK. In July, shortly after Theresa May became Prime Minister, Government sources revealed their intention to “restrict visas” in order to meet the net migration target. Then at the Conservative Party Conference earlier, international students became a key theme of the speech by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. Yesterday, following conflicting messages from the Treasury, Downing Street clarified that international students would not be excluded from the targets.

This clampdown is partly based on the belief that some international students are illegally overstaying their visas, and using study as a back door into the UK. During her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May made clear that this was a significant concern to her.

Her belief that students were overstaying was based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS) which showed that around 90,000 international students do not leave the UK at the end of their studies. However, research has found that the IPS is at odds with a number of other studies, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency Destination of Leavers Survey, which show few international students overstaying.

Last week, a Government-commissioned study supported the view that the IPS may be unreliable. The study found that barely 1 per cent of international students failed to leave after their course had ended.

But students overstaying their visas is not the only rationale for the restriction. Since the referendum, the Government has operated under the belief that the British public wants to reduce all forms of immigration. While the referendum should certainly be interpreted as a vote against Britain’s recent immigration policy, that does not mean the public opposes all forms of immigration.

Polling from ComRes, released today, finds that, of those who expressed a view, 75 per cent of British adults said they would like to see the same number, or more, international students in the UK. Furthermore, just 25 per cent of Leave and 23 per cent of Remain voters said that they even consider international students to be immigrants.

These findings should not come as a surprise. Bright Blue’s own research has found that an overwhelming majority of the public does not want a reduction in the number of international students. Our research also found that 85 per cent of Conservative Party voters were either happy with the current number of international students or wanted more of them. Indeed, for Conservatives, international students are the most popular type of immigrant.

Public support for international students is understandable. They pay significantly higher tuition fees than their domestic counterparts, and this revenue is estimated to be worth over £2 billion per year to British universities. Moreover, international students spend money on accommodation, textbooks, leisure and other living expenses while they are here. In total, international students bring around £8 billion into the UK economy each year.

But the benefits they bring are not simply economic. Analysis last year showed that 55 world leaders were educated at British universities. Countless individuals in influential positions abroad were educated here. These alumni bring significant “soft power” to the UK. This soft power will become increasingly important as the UK begins to negotiate new trade deals across the globe in the coming decades.

The market for international students is hugely competitive. Last year, their number here hit a nine-year low as the Government attempted to meet its net migration target. As fewer students chose to study in the UK, our competitors were the direct beneficiaries.

For instance, the number of Indian students studying here halved in just four years, from 40,000 to 19,500. At the same time, American universities reported a 29 per cent increase in Indian students, while universities in Canada, France, Germany and Australia also reported sharp rises.

The Government argues that the current net migration target places no cap on the number of Tier 4 (student) visas that can be issued. This is technically true: the net migration target does not discriminate between types of immigration. But, as long as students are counted in the target, the Home Secretary will have a strong incentive to reduce them.

And numbers do need to be reduced; the Brexit vote was a clear signal that the British people are uncomfortable with the current levels. In the referendum, the political class paid a heavy price for ignoring the public’s concerns on this issue.

But, last week’s ComRes poll shows that the public is not concerned by the level of international students here. Clamping down on them, therefore, is a mistake. It will not allay public concerns and it would detrimentally affect Britain’s economy and its soft power abroad just when we need to be strong.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue.