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UK ‘recommits’ to strategy after PGT dependant ban

The UK says it has “recommitted” to the aims of its international education strategy days after the government announced plans to end rules allowing international taught masters students to bring dependants with them to the country.

Photo: pexels

Higher education exports accounted for £19.5bn in 2020 and transnational education saw "moderate growth" from £2.2bn in 2019 to £2.3bn in 2020

The government said it is “firmly committed” to meeting and sustaining the 600,000 international students per year, which the UK first achieved a decade ahead of schedule.

The UK is “on track” to meet its £35 billion export ambition by 2030, given the country recorded £25.6bn in education exports in 2020, an increase of 0.8% since 2019. The government highlighted that from 2021, the average annual increase in export revenue of just over 3% per year is needed to meet the 2030 target.

Growth in higher education exports was the main contributor, accounting for £19.5bn and transnational education saw “moderate growth” from £2.2bn in 2019 to £2.3bn in 2020.

Further Education and English Language Training decreased by 49% and 74% respectively, with the government noting that medium- and longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the two sectors “are not yet known”.

“Despite the profound global changes that have taken place since we published the International Education Strategy in 2019, our strategy remains as relevant as ever,” education minister Halfon and business and trade minister Lord Johnson wrote in the foreword to the 2023 update.

“There should be no doubt that we continue to champion and value international education.”

The update clarifies three priorities going ahead that will “maximise the UK’s education potential”. Included among the priorities is: growing and diversifying the entire export base; protecting the competitiveness and sustainability of student recruitment; and developing the UK’s global education offer.

In the diversify strand, the government wants to “accelerate growth” in all education sector areas, including those impacted most by the pandemic, as well as in K-12, testing, technical and vocational education and TNE.

“The immigration of international students and their dependents must be sustainable”

The graduate route is “integral” to the “flagship ambition” of hosting at least 600,000 international students each year, the government added.

“At the same time, we recognise that the immigration of international students and their dependents must be sustainable,” it said.

Removing the right for international taught masters program students to bring dependants is part of a wider package of measures to control migration that “reflect the need to balance the vital economic, cultural and educational benefits that international students bring to the UK, with wider commitment to controlling migration”.

The move has been criticised by the sector, including its potential impact on female students and the possible £10bn hit the UK could face.

However, the update maintains that the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office has “taken great steps towards the goal” of championing the right of every girl everywhere to secure the knowledge and skills needed to reach her full potential.

It has committed a further £217 million for girls’ education at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to support teacher training in Rwanda and increase access for girls and vulnerable children to schools in Pakistan.

FCDO has also planned to provide £430m to the Global Partnership for Education over the next five years, and is supporting over 5,000 girls to continue to receive education “despite significant challenges over the last two years in Afghanistan”.

It also celebrates the success of the UK global study program the Turing scheme, which has come under fire from the sector for issues around funding and been referred to as a “poor replacement for Erasmus+”. The government update noted an increase in interest, with “520 applications for projects to run in the 2022 to 2023 academic year, compared with 412 in the first year of the scheme”.

The update comes following a report from the International Higher Education Commission, supported by Oxford International Education Group and chaired by Chris Skidmore MP, called for an overhaul of the strategy.

The IHEC, which launched earlier in 2023 classifies itself as an independent and apolitical commission, has made recommendations it says is needed to “build a more resilient sector”.

Along with shedding light on the significant social, cultural and economic contributions that international students make to the UK, the report aims to suggest solutions to address an “overreliance on one-year masters students”.

The paper says the government should take a shift towards short term master’s degrees into account and highlights that in the past year the intake on the nine-month long programs increased by almost 62,000 students.

Report author Janet Ilieva has previously highlighted that while international student numbers have grown overall, a 12% international decline at UG level in 2021/22 and a shift towards PGT programs, has imposed several risks.

The higher education sector has a high operational risk due to the high turnover of PGT students and the reliance on a few key markets, a “significantly reduced” geographical diversification of international students and a higher exposure to visa policy risk, “given possible restrictive changes in the UK and a subsequent liberal policy response by competitor countries”.

“The decline in the presence of EU students and the dominance of India and China as source countries for international students are likely to impact the internationalisation of the classroom experience,” Ilieva, together with associate professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University Vangelis Tsiligiris, wrote in an analysis for HEPI in February.

The data-led, first interim IHEC report highlights “the importance of ensuring that more international students are placed on full time degrees, rather than one year masters courses, if we are to ensure that international education can provide full value to students in the longer term”, commission chairman Chris Skidmore said.

The pivot from UG to masters programs means there are “substantially increased costs” associated with student recruitment as more students need to be recruited annually for one-year programs which was not the case with a typical first-degree three-year program.

Photo: IHEC

It also emphasises that the UK does not have an “effective system” to capture education exports, meaning the £35bn target is difficult to measure, in addition to making it “extremely difficult to establish a clear narrative about the significant economic benefits that [international students] bring to the UK”.

“It is right that the issue of dependents is looked at, in order to create a more sustainable international higher education system,” Skidmore continued.

“It is right that the issue of dependents is looked at”

However, any government reductions on overall international student number ambitions “would have been disastrous both for the UK economy and the HE sector, given that international students contribute over £40 billion to our local regions”.

“The two year post-study work visa has also remained in place, which is vital if we are to remain globally competitive, given other countries have more attractive visa offers,” he added. 

According to home office statistics, in Q1 2023 a total of 40,018 dependant visas were granted, compared with 26,394 in the same quarter in 2022.

Dependant numbers doubled overall in 2022, and the second largest source country for international students in the UK – India – brought a large number of dependants in 2022, as did Nigeria.

Minister for Immigration Robert Jenrick told parliament last week that the measures would have a “tangible effect” on dependant numbers.

“There is absolutely no sense that the government is reneging on [its international education strategy] commitments or creating an environment that is unwelcoming to international students,” he said.

“What we do want to see is universities focusing on teaching and not inadvertently creating a backdoor to immigration status here in the UK. That is why we’ve made the changes we have this week, which have been broadly welcomed by both the public and the sector.”

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