“It’s a sector we should be very proud of,” said Keegan, in an interview with the Financial Times. “It’s world-leading, a great advert to our country.”
Keegan told the publication she wanted to build on the UK’s export market in university education and to expand education export revenues from about £26bn to £35bn by the year 2030.
“We have a strategy which is very much focused on growing the revenue,” said Keegan.
Keegan’s comments come amidst reports that home secretary Suella Braverman will propose a reduction in the time that international students can stay and work in the UK after graduation from two years to six months – a move that the Department for Education has already opposed.
Ian Crichton, CEO of Study Group, told The PIE that Keegan’s expression of support is “significant”.
“After a period of unhelpful uncertainty driven by political concerns around immigration statistics, she has made absolutely clear that – while she will work with the home secretary to address any abuses – international education is a public good and an area of vital opportunity for the UK in future,” said Crichton.
“This is an important signal from a senior member of the cabinet which is also understood and supported by many other parts of government.”
Keegan and Braverman reportedly met last week to discuss international student numbers and the ability of students on “low-value” courses to bring dependants to the UK, the Financial Times reported that government officials said.
In November 2022, The PIE reported on concerns from UK university stakeholders on their ability to provide for and support international students and their families, due to rising numbers of dependants.
Crichton highlighted the dangers of describing university courses as “low-value”, highlighting that all courses are designed to meet quality standards set out by the regulator.
“I studied History at Aberdeen but it would be absolutely wrong to compare a technical or professionally-oriented qualification from a modern university as less valuable because of initial graduate salary levels,” said Crichton.
As for dependants, Crichton served a reminder, as many in the sector have done before, that only postgraduate students are entitled to bring dependants.
“We ought to consider who and what we might lose”
“We ought to consider who and what we might lose before we consider policy changes, no matter how headline grabbing,” he said.
According to Crichton, offering a globally competitive education and post-study work opportunities are vital to a thriving society, economy with connections that will help the UK “play a significant role in identifying the shared solutions which will be needed to build a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful society”.
“If we miss that chance we will neglect one of our most important assets and opportunities for our country,” he said.
It is reported that Keegan has agreed to help the Home Office to hone in on abuse in the system and told the publication her aims of ensuring a high-quality course offer to both British and international students.
The Home Office recently told The Times that Indian students are taking advantage of a loophole in asylum rules that allows asylum seekers to study in the UK while paying domestic fees rather than higher international fees.
About 250 Indian migrants have crossed the channel in small boats this year, a fifth of the 1,180 that have crossed in total this year, the publication reported.
Meanwhile, parliamentarian and chancellor of the University of Birmingham, Lord Karan Bilimoria asked for reassurance in parliament that having hit the UK’s target of 600,000 international students, there will no reduction to international student numbers.
On February 10, he also asked for confirmation that the two-year work visa will be retained, rather than reduced, and expressed concern about the how international students figures are collated.
“Why does the government continue to include international students within net migration figures? They should be excluded like our competitor countries do,” said Bilimoria.
“It is vital that international education isn’t treated as a political football,” said Crichton.
“It’s far too important for that both for the country and our place in the world. We need to remember that welcoming the talented young people who study with us and become a pipeline of skills and knowledge creation in our world-class universities is a privilege we can’t take for granted.”
A government spokesperson told The PIE, “Our points-based system is designed to be flexible according to the UK’s needs – including attracting top class talent from across the world to contribute to the UK’s excellent academic reputation and to help keep our universities competitive on the world stage.
“We keep all our immigration policies under constant review to ensure they best serve the country and reflect the public’s priorities.”