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Restricting UK student visas could mean large parts of sector becomes “uneconomic”

The UK public’s concern around overall migration levels “appears far more muted” now than compared with the time before the Brexit referendum, a key report into the country’s migration system has suggested.

Some 64% of the UK public thinks the UK should host the same or more international students. Photo: pexels

The share of students receiving visa lasting less than 18 months in 2021 and 2022 was 60%, which is broadly similar to the share under the pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit regime

The Immigration after Brexit: Where are we going? report by UK in a Changing Europe and the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford also highlights a “sustained shift” in positive attitudes towards migration in general.

Attitudes are favourable for work-related migration if “perceived to be controlled and in sectors or jobs where there is demand for workers”, as it warned that any restrictions student visas could mean “large parts” of the higher education sector could become uneconomic.

“International students are mostly not perceived as ‘immigrants’ at all”

A new Public First poll, commissioned by Universities UK, has also found that 64% of the UK public thinks the UK should host the same or more international students.

The survey of more than 2,000 people identified that only 9% thought that students and researchers should be discouraged from coming to the UK.

Some 62% recognised the economic benefit of international students and 43% pointed to diplomacy benefits of students leaving with positive impressions of the UK.

The UK in a Changing Europe report emphasises that international student migration is “generally uncontroversial with the public”, thanks to economic evidence – such as the high tuition fees they contribute – being broadly seen as positive impacts.

However, the report acknowledged a “substantial contribution” to immigration estimates has meant students have “sometimes been controversial”. The UK famously hit its highest-ever figure for net migration in the year to June 2022. Stakeholders have long campaigned for students to be removed from net migration figures.

The UUK poll found only 32% of the public believe that international students should be classed as immigrants in official figures.

“Indeed international students are mostly not perceived as ‘immigrants’ at all,” the report noted.

“Over the longer term, [international students] make a much smaller contribution to net migration, which – for better or worse – is the main measure in political debates about the scale of migration in the UK. The vast majority – well over 80% – of international students leave the UK within a few years, but some do remain long term,” the report said.

Over the past two decades, “the pendulum has swung between more restrictive and more liberal rules”, it continued, pointing to tightened rules in the early 2010s where the coalition government removed sponsor licenses from hundreds of colleges and limiting post-study work rights.

The paper describes the numbers of EU and non-EU students moving in opposite directions post Brexit as “striking”.

The drop in EU numbers is “almost certainly” due to higher fees as a result of Brexit rather than immigration rules, but the non-EU student rise could be multifaceted.

“It is difficult to know how much of the increase in non-EU student numbers results directly from the main policy change this group has faced, namely the liberalisation of post-study work rules,” it said.

Other factors could be efforts to “drum up” business in new countries, such as the priority countries featured in the government’s International Education Strategy, and “greater restrictiveness” in key ‘competitor’ countries such as the US and Australia.

“The largest increases in student visa grants have come from nationals of countries that have tended to make greatest use of post-study work visas,” it continued.

Citizens from India and Nigeria, both IES priority countries, along with Pakistan, “have been the most likely to move to work visas after graduation, and also saw the largest absolute increases in student visas”.

The report said that freedom of information data suggests that the share of students receiving visa lasting less than 18 months – consistent with a one-year master’s or shorter – in the years ending September 2021 and 2022 was 60%, which is broadly similar to the share under the pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit regime.

That means increases have taken place for courses of all durations, it said.

The post-Brexit immigration system has also seen a higher share of student visas going to dependant family members. While policy has not changed, it “appears the UK has become more attractive to students bringing family members”, driven by Nigerian and Indian citizens.

“Within government, discussions are currently ongoing as to whether to introduce new restrictions, especially on which students can bring dependents to the UK,” the report read. Currently only graduate students and above can bring family and spouses.

“The risk is that at current fee levels universities will have little choice but to prefer more lucrative foreign students”

“Modest changes to the rules may limit future growth, although will not necessarily reverse it. However, if the government’s response is aimed at severely restricting student visas in order to reduce net migration, the risk is that large parts of the sector will simply become uneconomic.

“Decisions affecting the number of international students thus cannot be taken in isolation from decisions about the future of UK higher education and its financing.”

A “rapid expansion in international student demand” following the introduction of the Graduate Visa has allowed universities to “compensate for large real-terms cuts in domestic student fees by increasing revenues from international students”.

The UUK survey also found that 48% think that international students should be able to stay in the UK somewhere between 1-5 years with only 13% saying they should leave immediately.

While there is no evidence to suggest international students have previously ‘crowded out’ domestic counterparts, there is “no guarantee” the same will be going ahead, it also warned.

“The risk is that at current fee levels universities will have little choice but to prefer more lucrative foreign students,” the report read.

“This new polling confirms that public perceptions of immigration, and of international students in particular, are not what the government may believe,” Vivienne Stern, chief executive of UUK, said in a statement.

“The public understands the enormous contribution that international students make to our economy, institutions and research outputs, as well as enormously benefiting the UK’s international reputation. Our international institutions are cherished by the public, and we would hope that government policy follows suit.”

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