Competing Globally: the impact of government immigration policy on UK universities

29 February 2012

My name is Eric Thomas, I'm President of Universities UK and Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol.

And I'm opening and chairing this debate today.

I'd like to start by making some comments that i think it's very important in framing this debate. Universities and Universities UK accept that migration is a significant issue for the British public. It is a matter of concern to our citizens and we acknowledge and we understand that.

Secondly we acknowledge and understand the decreasing net migration was a manifesto commitment for the Conservative party and for this government and we understand that we need to work with them on that.

Finally and categorically we would like to state that we are completely behind the government in stopping the abuse through student visas and we are not in any respect doing anything but supporting them fully in that case.

12 months ago the education sector was bracing itself for the outcome of the review of the student visa system. The consultation had united the education sector in challenging proposals that we believed would do significant and lasting damage to Britain’s position as a destination of choice for international students. In announcing the consultation outcome it was clear that the government had made efforts to protect the UK’s ‘trusted universities’. On the staffing side the sector campaigned vigorously on the need to ensure that top academics and researchers could secure visas.

So a year on, where do things stand? What has the impact been of the government’s immigration policy and where do we go from here?

At this stage it is too early to say what the full consequences have been. In fact the outcome may not be known for several years. But at a national level, it looks like this year has seen an increase in numbers of non-EU students enrolling for 2011/12. Which is welcome news for universities – but perhaps not so welcome for the government.

And we know that the number of applications through UCAS have increased this year although it's important to stress that UCAS applications are probably a minority of applications as they are only undergraduate applications.

There are some worrying trends under these quite positive figures there have been notable reductions in some key markets particularly the I​ndian subcontinent.

And there is growing evidence to suggest that reductions in international student numbers are occurring within postgraduate taught courses. It is difficult to get these numbers at this stage as they apply directly to the universities. 
And we are certainly aware at an institutional level of universities which have reported substantial drops in overall numbers and others that are reporting increases. So while total numbers may be up, for many universities, actually for some numbers may well be down.

And then there is the issue of international academics and researchers who make an enormous contributions to UK higher education, not least underpinning our ability to offer some strategically important courses to our students. The Migration Advisory Committee only yesterday recommended that the number of Tier 2 visas available for the forthcoming year should be retained at their existing level. And we understand and the government is likely to accept this recommendation and We are of course waiting the outcome of the settlement consultation which I believe will be announced today.

So, despite some improvements to original immigration proposals, and we do acknowledge how much attention was paid to our anxieties, universities still continue to have concerns about the apparent conflict between government policy and the sector’s ability to compete in the growing market for international students.

We are already seeing a shrinking of the UK’s market share of the international market. Which has fallen from 10.8 % in 2000 to 9.9 % in 2009. At the same time some of our biggest competitors have increased their market share. The international student market continues to offer substantial growth potential, increasing seven % per year between 2000 and 2009. It is estimated that a market worth £7.9 billion now could be worth £16.9 billion to the UK economy by 2025.

And let’s be clear; the UK benefits from international students long after they have returned home. A recent government report revealed that 78 % of international students graduating in 2010 planned to develop professional links with organisations in the UK in future and 61 % wanted to collaborate with UK universities for academic and research purposes.

Today’s YouGov poll reveals the extent to which the general public misunderstand the contribution that international students make to the UK. Our poll found that almost two-thirds underestimate the economic contribution of international students, with a quarter putting the value at one tenth of the actual figure. And more than a third incorrectly believe that the recruitment of international students results in the loss of places for UK and EU students.

On the other hand, the poll has revealed that many are positive about the benefits that international students bring. Nearly six out of ten agree that the international higher education market is important to the global competitiveness of UK universities. And the majority of people believe that international students should be allowed to stay and work at the end of their studies, with more than a third believing that they should be allowed to stay in the UK for as long as they have work.

Obviously universities have much more to do to increase public understanding of the benefits that flow from the UK’s outstanding performance in attracting international students and staff, the findings also reflect the unhelpful rhetoric from government and others surrounding international students – can have negative effects. We must address this issue before we can have a truly informed debate over student and academic migration.

As I said before Universities acknowledge the need to counter abuse, and we have supported the government’s efforts on this front, but Universities UK believe that this must be balanced with a clear message that genuine students are welcome.

And this is at the heart of the issue. Universities want to continue to expand international student numbers, to realise their potential in this growing export market, to build on the UK’s position as an intellectual hub. And at the moment it is not clear that all of government necessarily shares that view.

For government, immigration policy is driven by the desire to reduce the net flow of migrants to the UK. This desire to address widely held public concerns about immigration could trump significant economic considerations. It doesn’t need to be this way. Students are not permanent migrants. They come to the UK to study, and then by and large they leave.

A Home Office study found that of students who came to the UK in 2004, only 3% had permanently settled after 5 years.

This study also generated another important finding. A maximum of 2% of international students entering higher education in 2004 had potentially breached their visa conditions 5 years later. This is a tiny proportion of the total and shows that international students at our universities are not a high risk group.

We also now know that students, researchers and academics are not the migrants causing serious concern to the public.

I have said that the government’s immigration policy is driven by public concerns and we have to accept that in a democracy, it is right that the government’s policies should address those concerns. That’s why we are at pains not to criticise the government’s prioritisation of immigration policy. 

We just think that the general public are not particularly worried about international students and staff within our universities. Indeed a recent study by the Migration Observatory found that levels of concern in the public about immigration were lowest in relation to university students, scientists and researchers.

So to summarise:

Students are not permanent migrants. They come, they study and they leave.
They are a highly compliant group. Only a tiny proportion who study in our universities overstay.

This is an area of considerable potential growth for the UK economy – higher education is an increasingly important export industry, which could almost double in the next decade.

The government can enable this growth by policies to support international student recruitment.

The public are worried about immigration overall but not particularly worried about students, scientists and researchers

One final suggestion – we would like the government to remove university-sponsored international students from the net migration calculations for policy purposes as has happened in varying degrees in the United States and Australia.

So that’s our challenge to government. I hope it will spark a good debate today, this is an important and I acknowledge a contentious topic.

We have an excellent line-up of speakers here today and I am really looking forward to hearing what they have to say. First, please let me welcome Professor Julia King, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University. Julia...


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