Professor Eric Thomas, President of the association, called for international students attending university to be exempted from the immigration statistics, as they are in the USA – claiming that the UK’s economic gains and soft power leveraged by international students were at risk by the government’s pledge to cut immigration.
He pointed to a recent YouGov opinion poll which revealed significant ignorance among the general public of the economic contribution that international students make (one-quarter estimated 1/10 of the actual contribution), and their liklihood to settle in the country. In fact, in the Home Office’s own report, The Migrant Journey, only 3% of foreign students permanently settle in the country after five years. And the sector’s economic contribution could rise to UK£16.9 billion by 2025, he said.
Also attending the debate was Glyn Williams, Head of Migration Policy at the Home Office, as well as Professor Julia King, Vice Chancellor at Aston University, Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committe and Martin Ruhs of the Migration Observatory.
the public believed asylum seekers could account for up to 60% of immigrants, instead of the reality of 4%
Ruhs backed up Thomas’ point that public opinion about immigration and foreign students was confused, unveiling research that showed only 30% of respondents believed the number of foreign university students should be reduced, compared with over 60% of people when talking about low skilled workers. He said the public believed asylum seekers could account for up to 60% of immigrants, instead of the reality of 4%.
He also explained about net migration ‘bounce': because students are largely temporary migrants, any short term gain achieved by the government in restricting numbers would be offset in time by a decrease in migrants leaving the UK. As Vivenne Stern for Universities UK observed, “If the government wants a long-term reduction in net migration, they should focus on policies that restrict groups of people who are likely to stay”.
Thomas was in conciliatory move, backing the clampdown on bogus institutions, underlining that “we are at pains not to criticise the government’s prioritisation of immigration policy” and acknowledging that the Home Office had worked behind the scenes to help the university sector when reforming visa rules.
Indeed, a concession towards required English language level at pathway providers and part-time work rights – for those at university – had been achieved. And, as Thomas outlined, the latest HESA stats did not indicate a drop yet, in 2010/2011 intake – although figures masked drops from some countries in particular.
But the Home Office’s Williams was clearly the main butt of frustrations during the debate, not only from the audience but also from Vaz, who lambasted UKBA (and not Williams himself) as being unfit for purpose. He told the audience that any lobbying efforts about the damage the immigration cap was having on the sector should be taken straight to the Prime Minister’s office at No.10 (“which understands the business contribution”) or to the Department for Business.
King noted a dramatic decline in applications from India and Nigeria
Vaz – who said he had recently returned from a trip to India where he discovered the middle classes were now choosing the USA as a study destination – chaired the Home Affairs Select Committee report on student visas, which cautioned against reforms which could damage a thriving industry.
Also on the panel, King of Aston University noted a dramatic decline at her institution in applications from certain countries – with India and Nigeria most affected. She said that these students were not willing to risk studying in the UK and not finding a job afterwards, given the new rules which means only graduates with a job paying £20,000 can stay and work. “We can’t guarantee that and they can’t take the risk.”
King also highlighted the critical need the UK has for overseas engineering students. She estimated that in the next 5 to 10 years, 2.2 million engineering employees will be needed to cover predicted vacancies due to retirement and growth in infrastructure. “We are in danger of losing a battle for talent that is vital for the UK’s future,” she said.
But Williams noted a trebling of international student numbers in a decade and told the audience that they should not be surprised that the government would take an interest in migration, which was a ‘numbers game’. “It’s the biggest game in the migration world.”
“It’s the biggest game in the migration world”
Further debate on what was an appropriate rate of growth for the sector was needed, he said. “We don’t understand your sector’s plans for growth and that is a conversation we need to have,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘We are going to have as many students as we want’.”
He accepted that the visa reforms had contributed to a negative perception about the UK as a study destination but said the Foreign Office, British Council and Department for Business had all tried to counteract this. “Ironically the more we try to do the more it reverberates.”
So, no farther forward for the association’s mandate, but the risk to business and reputation of current visa rules was clearly laid bare. Vaz even distributed a list of high-status individuals – kings and politicians – who had all studied in the UK.
Williams’ final position: “We are as implicated in economic growth as other government departments and we don’t want to go against the grain, but with the grain.”