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UK sector must bring in urgent reform, says former minister

Urgent reform is needed if UK higher education is to remain sustainable in the global sector and maintain political support, a former UK Universities minister has warned.

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The GIC in Canada requires students on the fast-track Student Direct Stream to place CAN$10,000 in a secure account

Speaking at Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference on the future for international students in the UK, Lord Jo Johnson urged the UK to introduce four steps that he says should be “proactively” embraced by the sector.

He suggested changes need to be made and concerns confronted “head on” or the sector risks seeing “weakened” political consensus in support of international student recruitment growth.

Among the amendments suggested included increased “collective action” to weed out poor quality and fraudulent applications in the sector, while application fees for international students could result in higher enrolment conversion rates.

“Universities should require that tuition fees should be paid upfront,” Johnson continued. “They should require maintenance funds be put into an escrow account borrowing from Canada’s guaranteed investment certificate model.”

The GIC in Canada requires students on the fast-track Student Direct Stream to place CAN$10,000 in a secure account before arriving in the country to demonstrate the financial ability to afford to study costs.

Johnson, who said he has been advocating for the UK to introduce a similar scheme for a number of years, indicated that it would “help address related problems of fraud and the lack of diversification in our system”.

“It’s a complete no brainer that the UKVI needs to put this in place to… ensure that we have a system that is absolutely nailed down [and where] international students actually have the funds they claim to have. There’s no good policy reason not to do it.”

He also proposed “greater accountability for recruitment agents” including a register of recruitment agents and publication of KPIs relating to visa refusals, non-continuation and completion rates.

The Office for Students needs “to get a grip on” high dropout rates (which he said are approaching 25% for students from India and Bangladesh) and the regulator would benefit by requiring universities to publish annual statements on international student recruitment plans.

“There is a striking absence of forward-looking information in the public domain”

An overall picture of future UK trends would “enable the regulator to gain insights into individual recruitment strategies and the risk that institutions might be running”.

“At the moment, there is a striking absence of forward-looking information in the public domain about the emerging composition of the student body [as well as] the backward looking data [being…] very stale,” he said. “We need much greater visibility into the plans.”

Three concerns that the sector must grapple with include the reliance on postgraduate recruitment, the view that some education is being sold as immigration and the diversification of the international student cohort.

The “false narrative” that international students are displacing domestic students at UK institutions needs to be addressed, he added.

Janet Ilieva, director and founder of Education Insight, warned that a growing reliance on particular countries – especially as European students continue to turn away from the UK largely as a result of increased cost due to Brexit – and a drop in diversity will have an impact on student experience.

The UK’s graduate route – which was supported, along with growth in international student numbers, by a “political consensus” – remains in place. There had been fears that the government would curtail the scheme as part of a crackdown on students related to a reduction in net migration targets.

“That consensus has weakened considerably in the past year or so,” Johnson said.

It would be a mistake for the sector to “cry foul” and look at recent policy announcements on PGT dependants as “collateral damage” in the government’s push to reduce net migration, he maintained.

“Let’s be clear, the economic benefits are actually pretty well understood… so too are the benefits that international students bring to our universities,” he added, pointing to the recent report from HEPI and Kaplan which found that international students added £42 billion to the UK economy in 2021/22.

“[But] it’s important that if we’re going to have a sustainable sector role in the international market for higher education, I think we do need to address these concerns that remain.”

Johnson also suggested that “the days of government support for further rapid growth in international student numbers are probably over for now at least”.

The recent international strategy recommitment did not include the words “at least” before the 600,000 target, he noted.

“Those two words have gone missing from the language with which we talk about the international education strategy,” he said, which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

“The future should be bright, but only if the sector reforms”

The “worst interpretation” is that 600,000 is now a “de facto cap” and at the other end is that 600,000 is “an annual target rather than a floor from which the sector can expect to see continued rapid growth”, he maintained.

“We are at a critical moment, really, in my view, where the sector needs to do much more to win back political support that’s been sacrificed over the past couple of years for the very positive role that international students play in our system.

“The future should be bright, but only if the sector reforms and deals with many of the real issues that have surfaced during the last two or three years of growth, particularly since the graduate route was reintroduced,” Johnson concluded.

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