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The UK government is undermining one of its most valuable exports: education

Congratulations… you made it in! Birkbeck Media Services Centre, CC BY-NC-ND

International orientation weeks for new overseas students are looming for universities across the UK. At all our international airports you will soon see welcoming parties assembling to meet and greet these new arrivals. At my university, Aston, more than 20% of our students are from overseas, from more than 120 different countries.

But across the UK there a threat is emerging to our ability to attract overseas students and reap the rewards they bring – over £4bn in fees and accommodation in 2011-2012.

It’s worth looking at how the number of international students has grown. A new infographic by the British Council allows us to track the numbers of students who have come to sample UK higher education since 1996, when 199,000 students came here, up until 2012, when the numbers had risen to more than 430,000. Back in the 1990s, Greece and Malaysia were top of the list of countries of origin, with Nigeria just making it into the top 20. Now China is way out in front and Nigeria in fifth place.

Students coming into the UK in 2012, by country of origin. British Council

But for the first time in 30 years, there has been a decline in the numbers of overseas students coming to the UK – from 435,005 in 2011 to 431,905 in 2012. For specific countries the decline is startling – 20,000 students came from India in 2012 compared to 33,000 in 2010.

The impact of these declining numbers is not just economic. A recent report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee identified the “unprecedented fall” in the numbers of international students enrolling in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses – a fall of over 10% in the past two years.

The evidence is that the decline in overseas recruitment is directly related to the changes in immigration rules in this country, to the inclusion of student numbers in the net migration targets and the perception of an unwelcoming and obstructive attitude to those wishing to come to the UK to study.

Rules tightening

The new rules and requirements for acquiring student visas have been described as Kafkaesque. It has been estimated that UK universities now have to spend £67m a year just on visa compliance activities to ensure they don’t lose their treasured Highly Trusted Sponsor status.

The rules associated with this have just been made more difficult. Currently, educational institutions cannot enjoy highly trusted sponsor status if 20% or more of the individuals they have offered places to are refused visas. But that figure will be cut to 10% in November.

It is clear that the obstacles are only getting higher. Visas can be refused on the grounds that a student only has the “correct funds” in their bank account for 27 as opposed to 28 days, or if fluctuations in the exchange rate cause these funds to dip temporarily below the required minimum.

And for those students who manage to navigate the visa minefield, it is being made clear that this country wants them to leave as soon as they have graduated. The post-study work visa which allowed graduates two years to find employment was abolished in 2012.

Graduates have to find a sponsoring employer and earn a minimum of £20,500 to be able to stay on, even if they are working in a shortage occupation such as engineering.

There was even a point last year when coming back for graduation appeared to be under threat, with the proposed introduction of £3,000 “visitor bonds”, now abandoned.

Cross-party calls for change

Complaints against the negative effect that immigration policies are having on overseas recruitment are not just coming from the university sector, or from opposition parties but from within the government itself and from its supporters.

Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, shortly followed by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, have now called for overseas student numbers to be removed from the net migration targets.

This would also seem to be echoed by the government’s potential electorate. A new survey published by Universities UK shows public support for the “decoupling” of overseas student numbers from net migration targets, with a significant proportion of this support from Conservative voters.

But the government, or more specifically the Home Office, does not appear to want to listen. Every single one of the recommendations from the House of Lords Select Committee report of the impact of immigration policies on international student science recruitment were rejected in July.

Both Australia and the US have suffered the sort of downturn in international student numbers that is emerging in the UK and have had to reverse the associated immigration policies accordingly.

Surely there is enough evidence emerging and enough of an outcry accumulating for the Home Office to realise the harm that is being done to one of this country’s most valued products.

They also bring cultural diversity onto our campuses and take home positive memories of studying in the UK, generating important “soft power” networks for this country. Turning away overseas students in order to pander to ill-informed concerns about migration is storing up a huge problem for the future.

For more, read Cardiff University Vice-Chancellor Colin Riordan’s article: Drop in overseas students adds to universities’ cash woes

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