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Drastic policy changes ‘could damage’ UK sector

The UK risks a decline in international student numbers if the government drastically changes policy on post-study work and students bringing dependants, stakeholders have warned.

Photo: Roger Harris Photography

Home secretary Suella Braverman has proposed reducing the Graduate route to six months from two years

In recent years, the UK has had “a privileged position” where an “eager” government introduced a strategy featuring the 600,000 student and £35 billion value targets, as well as opened up the postgraduate work route, according to Lil Bremermann-Richard, chief executive officer of Oxford International.

“We’ve seen an influx of student numbers and then we have on the flip side, now the post-Brexit, post-Covid hangover, as I would call it, the see-what-we-are-going-to-do-environment,” she said at PIE Live Europe in London.

“The government is saying we need to reduce migration,” she said, and international students are seen as something that needs to be “controlled”.

“That rhetoric is having a negative impact in source markets”

“The government hasn’t [announced any policies], but that rhetoric is having a negative impact in source markets and also among international students arriving. Am I worried? Yes,” she explained.

Home secretary Suella Braverman has proposed reducing the Graduate route to six months from two years and government is reviewing the dependants issue.

“I don’t want this to be a culture war issue,” member of parliament for Kingswood and former universities minister Chris Skidmore said, mentioning two specific aspects.

“One is this false narrative that somehow international students are crowding out the availability for domestic students to study at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The reality is that some of these courses wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for international students cross-subsidising them,” he said.

Institutions act as if the reliance on international students is embarrassing, he suggested, calling on universities to “lean into” evidence showing the importance the students bring to UK higher education.

“We’ve got a new department,” he said, indicating the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and ambitions to make the UK an “international technology superpower”.

“When it comes to discovery-led research, R&D in universities, it is international student fees that are cross subsidising some of that research and to be able to demonstrate that that is taking place I think it’s quite important,” he said.

“You can’t be a science superpower without international students.”

Folabi Obembe, president and CEO of Worldview International Group, shared that Nigerian students choose to come to the UK because dependants can access work.

“They [realise] that the education can pay for itself [if the students’ dependants work]. That has helped in increasing the numbers,” he said.

There needs to be more clarity on any potential policy changes, UKCISA’s Anne Marie Graham stated, adding that those advising students are coming under pressure to answer questions that the do not have answers for.

However, founder & CEO at LeverageEdu Akshay Chaturvedi accepted that changes are necessary.

If we have to give up a few things to make the sector’s perception better or clearer, I think you should do those things collectively from the sector [rather than somebody imposing the rules] from the outside,” Chaturvedi said. “It’s the sector’s responsibility to take this to the right people in the government.”

Other speakers throughout the first day of PIE Live Europe weighed in on the state of the wider UK sector.

“The fact we are still delivering this fantastic strategy is worth celebrating”

Independent HE’s Alex Proudfoot noted that the UK is currently in a strong position with record numbers and “fantastic” satisfaction rates.

The fact we are still delivering this fantastic strategy is worth celebrating, despite all of the negative rumours in the press,” he said. But he also questioned whether the 600,000 and £35bn ambitions achievable together, with one already reached but the value target some £10bn off.

“What that says to me is that we aren’t going to get to that target by delivering the first student number target… we aren’t going to get to £35bn by just increasing the number of university places,” he said. The sector is also facing capacity in the current accommodation challenge, he indicated.

Skidmore also asked how the £35bn target can “be reached sustainably”.

The UK ELT sector is “bullish” and expecting a strong summer, especially in the junior market, according to English UK membership director, Huan Japes.

“Other countries are rolling out the red carpet for international students,” he said, pointing to Canada, Australia and other destinations in Europe.

Work opportunities for adult learners at language schools would bring the UK in line with competitors in Ireland and Malta, he reminded.

If there’s one thing I’d like to see, that other countries have that we don’t, it’s a limited number of work rights for our long-stay adults student – that will really help the market,” he said.

Colin Bell, CEO of Council of British International Schools noted the recently revised education export for 2019 was £1.5 billion higher than previously reported was “a great news story”.

Granted, that was pre-pandemic, but in terms of how that fits across other sectors, the UK educational export actually outstrips food and beverage, pharma and also the sales of legal services. So I think there’s every good reason to be to be buoyant,” he said.

Bremermann-Richard called for more joined up thinking from policymakers.

Parts of the government have “messages saying we have a significant skills gap in this country, we want the country to be a science hub in the world, but others say ‘we don’t want talent'”, she noted

“On one side, you say you don’t want that talent and on the other side you said you need the talent. There needs to be a conversation happening between ministers.

“We need to connect the dots.”

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