Matt Western branded recent rhetoric against the UK’s international students as “damaging” while giving a speech at the Independent Higher Education conference in London on November 28, as he considered the impact it could have on the country’s position as an attractive study destination.
“It’s extraordinary that when you have a successful export that you would want to damage it,” said Western when asked by an audience member his thoughts on the Home Office’s treatment of international students.
Western said the government must be protective of such export – which contributes £42bn to the economy – or be at risk of diminishing the UK’s appeal as a destination, losing out to the US, Canada or Australia.
He went on to note that such rhetoric is not lost on prospective students considering choosing the UK.
“Young people, students looking to travel abroad, they are well connected and well read,” he said.
An “adult conversation” is needed about the number of students coming to the UK and their place within the immigration statistics, added Western.
The release of the UK’s net migration figures brought fresh calls to government from Conservative MPs to limit legal routes to the UK.
Chair of FutureLearn and former universities minister, Jo Johnson, speaking at the event, said there is a “danger”, with a general election not far away and net migration numbers that are seen by a chunk of the Conservative party as being far too high, that policy could be made “on the hoof”.
Despite this “period of risk”, Johnson remains “hopeful that the graduate route will survive until the general election”.
The effect of the dependants change has not yet been felt, said Johnson, but “anecdotally” its impact is taking some of the “political heat” away from this particular area of the net migration figures, he shared with delegates at the conference.
“I do think though that the sector has got to continue to work on some aspects of international student recruitment on the quality side to assure that it retains political support for this aspect of the model,” he added.
“International students are clearly of value to employers”
One employer championing the value of international students in the labour market is Mark Hilton, policy delivery director at BusinessLDN, a not for profit advocacy group with a membership composed of leaders of businesses in London.
“International students are clearly of value to employers,” said Hilton while speaking on a separate panel at the event.
“They bring skills and experience that we simply cannot grow in the local labour market. Many of our professional services firms value the language skills, the local knowledge and the connections that global talent can bring to international projects.”
According to Hilton, despite the “countless success stories” and positive impact on business, the rhetoric surrounding international students has gone “backwards”.
Hilton is seeking a commitment from government, one that shows support for international students. He would particularly like to see the government committing to the graduate visa “for the long term”.
It’s a sentiment that is shared by other UK international educators and one that they’d like to see in manifestos for the general election.
“We really need shared, joined-up messaging from government and a shared campaign to show that the UK is a great place to learn and work,” he added.
Throughout the conference, multiple stakeholders, including Western and Johnson, expressed hope that the UK’s newly appointed home secretary – who took up the role earlier in November – understands the value of international students.
“James Cleverly is changing the tone and that is long, long overdue” said Western.