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UK rejects immigration reform for STEM

The British government has refused to alter its immigration policies to protect the provision of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at UK universities – despite warnings from the House of Lords that its policies threaten the viability of many STEM programmes.

"We acknowledge that some disciplines may rely on international students for viability"

Responding to a major Lord’s select committee report on STEM, the government rejected proposals such as the removal of non-EU students from net migration statistic, aimed at protecting the large number of overseas enrolments on STEM courses. But it did say it was monitoring the impact of its visa policies.

“We acknowledge the committee’s concern that an unintended consequence of the reforms to the student route could be a fall in legitimate student numbers and that some disciplines – particularly STEM postgraduate taught courses – may rely on international students for viability,” it said.

STEM could be damaged by a “‘triple whammy’ of immigration rules, fees and the lack of finance available to postgraduate students”

“The government will be closely monitoring the impact of the reforms and look for any unintended consequences, as is good policy making practice,” it added.

The report, published this summer, says STEM graduates are key to the UK’s economic future but identifies a mismatch between their supply and demand, citing CBI data that 40% of employers have difficulty sourcing skilled graduates within the country.

It puts forward measures to increase uptake by UK students, such as increasing maths provision in UK schools, but also calls for a rethink of student visa policy given the substantial revenue non-EEA students bring to British STEM courses. In 2009–10, 13% of first degree qualifiers, 55% of masters degree qualifiers and 42% of PhD qualifiers from STEM degrees were from overseas.

To protect provision it proposes removing overseas students from net migration statistics and reforming the Tier 2 £20,000 salary threshold – which replaced the more generous Post Study Work visa this year – to work in the UK after graduation.

In an official response to the report this week the government gave no ground but did say it was “looking closely at the experience of other countries and the measures they are taking to attract international students” – a possible caveat to change tack if enrolments decline.

It also agreed in principal to provide universities with more “real time” data to help manage fluctuations in overseas enrolments, having acknowledged that overseas students “made up 12% of the UK HE student population in 2010/11 but contributed 35% of total HE course fees”. UKBA and HEFCE were looking at ways to provide “useful” additional data, it said.

“[Overseas students] made up 12% of the UK HE student population in 2010/11 but contributed 35% of total HE course fees”

The government has previously acknowledged the importance of STEM graduates to the economy, stating in its Plan for Growth that the British economy needs to be “retooled for a high-tech future” if it is to create jobs and prosperity.

But Chairman of the Lords sub-committee who is behind the report, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, said the government had failed to make reforms to immigration, schools and higher education needed to protect STEM.

“There is significant potential for damage to [STEM] provision in the coming years from the ‘triple whammy’ of immigration rules, fees and the lack of finance available to postgraduate students,” he said.

“Government needs to recognise that this is a national issue that requires national action.”

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