QS forecast a potential £10 billion annual deficit to the economy while others warned that women will be disproportionately impacted by the new policy.
High profile spokespeople including UUK director Vivienne Stern and Succession actor Brian Cox appeared in the British media highlighting the value of international students to the economy and warning the government not to go any further in limiting their work or visa rights.
On the ground however, at networking events and on campuses, the mood among some university staff is different.
Dismiss it as unpopular opinion, but there seems to be a sense of relief amongst recruitment, admissions and student support staff, particularly at high-growth institutions.
And who can blame them?
According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, the number of students bringing dependants doubled in 2022.
The number of international students coming to the UK over the past five years has risen by 211,000. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 10%.
Only Canada has experienced the same level of rapid growth as the UK.
Many of these staff have been stretched to the limit in recent years and the thought of some respite is welcome news, even if their vice chancellors and chief finance officers might feel differently.
A lesson in individual motivations
The vast majority of university professional service staff have no incentive to deal with greater volumes of students.
They aspire for peer recognition, to make a difference in students’ lives and to do a good job, but, for many, they are simply protecting their mortgages and enjoying the flexible benefits that the public sector can offer.
“I’m pleased to see the policy change regarding switching the visa”
Their pay doesn’t grow with the size of the intake. But their stress levels do.
The best minds in international education work with passion to solve a global social problem – how to educate our young people and prepare them for a rapidly changing future.
But what policy makers and private sector disruptors often misunderstand is the politics within an institution. For all the headlines on growth in international recruitment, the people tasked with delivering it would take quality over quantity everyday.
“I’m pleased to see the policy change regarding switching the visa – it was much needed,” explained Shivani Bhalla, head of international student recruitment at Brunel University London.
The issue of students switching to full time employment in the care sector soon after enrolling has been a huge headache for international directors trying to forecast numbers and manage capacity.
“Many UK universities had a healthy international student recruitment intake pre-Graduate Route,” Bhalla continued. She probably won’t be the only one remembering calmer times with fondness.
According to Unite, 90% of its accommodation in the UK was already sold for the 2023/24 academic year by April.
Britain has a backlog of 4.3 million homes missing from the national housing market. It is a struggle for university support services to find accommodation for students, let alone for their dependant families.
The reality is some universities started advising agents months ago to dissuade students who intended to apply with dependants, as they simply could not offer the support needed around accommodation and schooling.
IHEC commission chairman Chris Skidmore, in response to government reassurance that it is still committed to the intentional education strategy, said, “It is right that the issue of dependants is looked at, in order to create a more sustainable international higher education system.”
Similarly UK trade minister Lord Johnson wrote “we recognise that the immigration of international students and their dependants must be sustainable”.
Be careful what you wish for
With the legal migration of students one of the few measures that the government can actually control in reducing net migration, there are genuine concerns that the Graduate Route may be shortened or even removed in the near future.
The UK government removed a successful post-study work visa back in 2012 which triggered a major decline in overall students coming from India.
Subsequently it lost market share to countries like Canada, Ireland and Australia who had attractive post-study work visas and paths to permanent residence.
That gap between the top four anglophile study abroad destinations has significantly narrowed in the past five years (by 350,000 students) as US numbers have slowed and other destinations have become more competitive on price and visa rights.
The post-covid world is one of global competition.
With other countries already extending the length of time graduates can stay, the number of hours they can work and even the incentives they pay to support regional migration – will it be so easy for the UK to turn the tap back on if it does want to take a break?
Do you work in international student support or recruitment at a UK university? Are you relieved to see the government introduce restrictions on dependants? Do you think the UK has over-recruited in recent years? Have your say in the comments below or anonymously by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org