Does the UK want more or fewer international students?

Just as British Council Education Director Maddalaine Ansell was stressing the importance of showing that the United Kingdom “values our international students” and wants to “make their journey as easy as possible” at the first Going Global Asia Pacific conference in Singapore, the UK government was struggling to hold a common line over whether it wants more or fewer foreign students studying at British universities.

Higher education leaders in the United Kingdom must have felt a sense of déjà vu when they saw newspaper headlines warning of a ‘Student visa crackdown’ and ‘Foreign students face ban from universities’ after a government briefing to political correspondents sought to clarify how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak intended to respond to record levels of migration.

This is because arguments from some government ministers, including Home Secretary Suella Braverman, had echoes of previous cabinet infighting when Theresa May was the Conservative Party prime minister in 2017.

Back then, May, who was home secretary before becoming prime minister after the Brexit referendum, pledged to toughen visa requirements for international students as part of efforts to “bear down on immigration from outside the European Union”.

As University World Newsreported at the time, the Conservative general election manifesto that year pledged to reduce net immigration from 273,000 per year to “tens of thousands” and rejected pleas from university leaders to remove overseas students from the immigration statistics.

Vice-chancellors argued that most international students returned home after completing their studies and shouldn’t be included in the immigration data.

Fast forward five years and they are making the same case today together with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students whose co-chair Paul Blomfield MP claimed: “Nobody’s concerned about international students in the debate on net headline migration numbers.”

Net migration hits record level

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show net migration at a record 504,000, with immigration to the UK reaching an estimated 1.1 million in the year to June 2022 and around 560,000 people emigrating from the UK.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “These unusually high levels of net migration result from a unique set of circumstances following the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. We cannot assume they represent a ‘new normal’, and it would be rash to take major policy decisions based only on these numbers.

“Most non-EU citizens on work and study visas eventually leave the UK, but not for two to three years. As a result, the UK may well see artificially high estimates of net migration over the next couple of years, before emigration catches up.”

She said the UK issued 465,000 sponsored study visas to non-EU citizens in the year ending June 2022, but, based on past trends, between 80% and 90% of those people would be expected to leave the UK over the coming decade.

However, that hasn’t stopped various members of the governing Conservative Party clashing over whether the UK should continue growing its international student population after the country hit its 2030 target of recruiting 600,000 nearly a decade early, due in part to major study abroad rivals, such as Australia and New Zealand, shutting their borders to foreign students at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the latest net migration figures, Braverman was warming up for a fight over soaring international student numbers which pushed up immigration totals, as did the surge of arrivals fleeing the war in Ukraine and China’s clampdown in Britain’s former colony of Hong Kong.

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