The findings were revealed in a new poll conducted by ComRes for Universities UK. The poll also reveals that most members of the British public do not view international students as immigrants to the UK. The results show that only 26% of the British public think of international students as immigrants when thinking about government immigration policy.
The survey found that two-thirds (64%) of British adults think international students have a positive impact on the local economies of the towns and cities in which they study. 61% of the public believe that international students also have a valuable social and cultural impact on university towns and cities.
The poll shows that, while there remain concerns about immigration levels in many parts of the country, the public recognise the substantial gains to towns, cities and regions from having international students in their area. The results also show that universities play a critical role in ensuring that their international connections help benefit the region.
Three quarters (75%) of the British public also believe that international students should be allowed to work in the UK for a fixed period after they have graduated, rather than returning immediately to their home country after completing their studies.
Recently-published figures on the economic impact of international students in the UK – produced for Universities UK by Oxford Economics – showed that they now generate more than £26 billion for the economy and their spending supported 206,600 jobs in university towns and cities across the UK.
The ComRes poll, based on the views of over 4,000 British adults, found that:
After discovering the contribution international and EU students make to the economy and the jobs they generate, 73% of the British public would like to see the same number or more international students coming to the UK (24% say they would like to see more, on top of the 49% who would like to see the same number)
In relation to the UK government's immigration policy, only 26% of British adults think of international students as immigrants
Two in three (64%) British adults think international students have a positive impact on the local economies of the towns and cities in which they study
58% of British adults agree that this economic contribution helps to create jobs
61% of the British public think that international students have a valuable social and cultural impact on the towns and cities in which they live
Three quarters (75%) of the British public agree that international students should be able to work in the UK for a fixed period of time after they have graduated, rather than returning immediately to their home country after completing their study.
Responding to the poll, Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, said: "It is clear that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. They come to the UK, study for a period, then the vast majority return home.
"In the context of concerns about the impact of globalisation, this poll shows that universities are able to ensure that their international links provide a direct benefit to the region.
"It is clear that the positive economic impact of international students extends to all corners of the UK, and not only to London or one or two large cities. The poll shows also the public recognises the valuable social and cultural impact international students have in regions across the country.
"But, while the UK government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers, adding to the perception that they are not welcome here.
"The most recent figures on international students in the UK showed a worrying decline in the number of new international enrolments over recent years. At the same time, competitor countries such as the USA and Australia have seen increases. Both countries open their arms to international students and classify them as being non-permanent or temporary residents in their immigration systems.
"The UK could be doing much better than this. The UK has the potential to be one of the world's fastest growing destinations for international students, building on its current status as the second most popular destination for international students [after the US].
"If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK. As the UK prepares to exit the EU, it is more important than ever that we project a welcoming message to talented people from across the world."
1. ComRes interviewed 4,043 British adults aged 18+ online between 22nd and 26th March 2017. Data were weighted by age, gender, socio-economic grade and region to be representative of all GB adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data tables are available on the ComRes website.
2. Other countries view students as being non-permanent or temporary residents: e.g. Australia classifies them as temporary arrivals alongside tourists and visitors; the US classifies them as 'non-immigrant admissions' alongside tourists and business travellers; and Canada categories them as 'non-permanent residents'.
3. Latest, official figures on the number of international students in the UK from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that, between 2014/15 and 2015/16, there was no growth in the total number of (non-EU) international students studying in the UK (312,010 to 310,575 students) and, between 2013/14 and 2015/16, there was a drop of 4% in the number of new (non-EU) international student enrolments in the UK.
4. In relation to developing a more evidence-based approach to immigration policy relating to international students, Universities UK is calling on the government to make a public commitment on the four following priorities: 1) No new policy decisions on student visas will be made until more robust data is published to assess the extent of any student overstaying; 2) If this data proves that minimal numbers of international students overstay, a review of existing policies on international students and net migration will be undertaken; 3) Government will work with the sector to improve the current system for assessing immigration compliance so it is fairer, objective and focused on factors within an institution's control; 4) A long-term, sector-informed government strategy for international student growth will be developed to include communicating a welcoming message to international students, and enhanced opportunities for qualified international graduates in the UK to work and contribute to local economies.