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The Home Secretary’s speech – the implications for international students

Daniel Hurley

Dan Hurley

Programme Manager
Universities UK
Davina Foord

Davina Foord

Former Policy Researcher
Universities UK
Jo Attwooll

Jo Attwooll

Programme Manager
Universities UK
Home office
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, made her keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday and UUK was listening with keen interest. The speech was expectedly tough on abuse within the immigration system overall. From the universities’ perspective, we agree with the Home Secretary that care must be taken to ensure that students are genuine and that there must be mechanisms in place to prevent overstaying.

Home Office analysis suggests that levels of student visa abuse in the university sector are very low.A report from 2011 estimated that no more than 2% of students enrolled at UK universities were ‘potentially non-compliant’. The level of abuse is likely to be even lower now, given the significant investment that has taken place in universities in recent years into immigration compliance. Universities were estimated to have spent a total £67 million in this area in 2012-13.

Universities UK has been engaged in a wide range of work on immigration compliance with the Home Office to ensure that we end up with a system that is proportionate, relevant to higher education and effectively targets any abuse. We will continue to work with the Home Office in a constructive partnership to continue to further minimise any levels of abuse within the sector. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that genuine, talented international students, who contribute significantly to the cultural diversity of UK universities and the wider UK economy, are not deterred or prevented from choosing the UK as their study destination of choice.

The reality is that the vast majority of international students simply stay in the UK for the duration of their course and return home as soon as their student visa expires. Typically, those who want to remain here legitimately must obtain a graduate-level job paying a relatively high salary which enables them to stay and work in the UK for a short period before either returning home, or remaining in the UK as a settled worker, or through another visa route.

The speech also stated that the UK continues to ‘welcome international students’. This is an important message to convey internationally. UUK has consistently emphasised the huge contribution that international students make to the UK, both academically and economically – to the tune of over £7bn per year.  Unfortunately, sometimes the messages carried overseas have not been positive –a number of recent visa changes which have been picked up by international media outlets have encouraged the perception of the UK as an ‘unwelcoming’ destination for international students. We must work hard to rebut this perception. What we need now are policy decisions that clearly and unequivocally reinforce this welcoming message.

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