UK education’s soft power will weaken if student visas remain so hard to get

We got here! Birkbeck Media Services Centre, CC BY-NC-ND

Welcoming international students used to be one of the key ways that Britain developed long-term, soft power relationships to aid trade and wield political influence. One in ten current global leaders were educated in the UK. But according to independent research commissioned in 2013 by Regent’s University London, only 68% of students believe that the UK is a good place to do business and only 51% feel that they have developed contacts to help them do business with the UK in future. Our educational impact is bleeding away.

A 2011 report by the Home Affairs Select Committee was highly critical of the government’s approach to welcoming international students and expressed concerns that more regulation of visas could have serious unintended consequences. In 2013, for the number of international students enrolling at UK universities declined for the first time.

In the wake of this clear warning signal to government, on October 23, the select committee ran a joint conference with Regent’s University to consider how the land currently lies on student visas. Of particular concern was the continuing inclusion of students within the government’s net migration target.

Not very welcoming

While everybody recognised the sensitive nature of the immigration topic, with the exception of a lone and isolated representative of Migration Watch UK the speakers and participants all spoke up about the many benefits to be gained from international students and the contribution they can go on to make to the UK economy.

Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors and Fiona Tait from Deloitte made the point that first-class international students and graduates are a valuable resource for the UK who should be welcomed.

All the speakers at the event believed the UK must maintain regulations to ensure that only the brightest and best students receive visas to study in Britain and that “phoney colleges” be closed down and penalised.

Research commissioned by Regent’s from Youthsight, of students at 105 universities showed that 94% of international students recognised the outstanding quality of a British degree. More than 80% were satisfied with their programmes and the quality of learning experience. But around 40% felt they were not welcomed by their universities for anything other than the revenue that they contributed. As many as 50%, particularly at Russell Group institutions, felt that they were not integrated with other students.

Visa woes

But the current visa system is not fit for purpose. What’s needed are consistent and clear processes for visa applications that remain stable over time. There needs to be a rapid response to applications and requests for assistance, that could be helped by the development of a courteous, customer care service to manage visa applications and to welcome students to Britain to start their studies.

John Vine, chief inspector of borders and immigration, said that he felt progress on customer service had been made in the last two years but that there was still a long way to go. The management of applications at different application centres around the world can vary greatly. Vine said he still finds “tremendous inconsistency in quality”.

The privatisation of visa services in some countries and the transformation of many visa offices into post offices rather processing points is not helping maintain consistency across the world.

‘No cap’ insists minister

In his keynote speech, James Brokenshire, the minster for immigration and security, repeated the standard government line that there is no cap on genuine international students studying in Britain. But in my opinion, the problem is that the UK makes it such a difficult and lengthy process to gain a visa that increasingly, students from traditional provider countries such as India, Pakistan or Nigeria decide to not to come to the UK.

Earlier this year, when a senior figure from the Australian higher education system visited the UK, he thanked the UK universities minister for the UK’s tough visa policy for international students. “It was”, he is reported to have said, “making it much easier for Australia to succeed in an increasingly competitive market for such students.”

For short-term political reasons, despite the fact that Universities UK has lobbied for change on the net migration question and been backed by six parliamentary select committees, students are still included in the net migration figures.

In a glimpse of what the alternative could be, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister of Spain until 2011, told the conference that Spain’s welcoming policy for international students – which has been constant for 15 years – means the country is now the most popular destination for Erasmus students in Europe.

The UK is at a tipping point. Unless we improve our processes and reputation among international students soon, we will pass the point of no return and never be able to recover our position.