Speaking during an education committee meeting in Westminster, education department officials warned that any change to the UK visa offer to prospective students could reduce the UK’s ability to attract the “best students from around the world”.
After reaching the 600,000 target a decade ahead of schedule, the department of education is working with universities to “focus on how we can expand and grow still”, education minister Gillian Keegan said.
Expanding the breadth of countries to recruit international students also remains a priority, she suggested.
“Clearly when we’re looking at the challenge of migration, which I’m not underestimating, we do have huge, huge issues and the small boats is obviously something that concerns many of us and our constituents, [but] we’ve really got to separate that from people who are coming here to do degrees,” Keegan told the committee.
“I’ve never had any concerns raised about PhD students”
The government has been under pressure from some in the UK to reduce net migration after it hit 504,000 in the year to June. The prime minister’s spokesperson had told reporters that Downing Street is “looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees”. Reports have suggested that any plans to restrict international student numbers have come from No 10 rather than the Home Office.
Chair of the committee, Robin Walker, highlighted that constituents had raised concerns “over the years about uncontrolled migration, about the issue of small boats, [but] I’ve never had any concerns raised about PhD students”.
Co-chair of the APPG on international students, Paul Blomfield MP, has previously stated that “nobody’s concerned about international students in the debate on net headline migration numbers”.
Committee member and MP for Don Valley in the north of England, Nick Fletcher, pressed the minister on the differentiation in quality of Russell Group universities compared with non-Russell Group institutions.
“[Press speculation] would seem to imply that in some people’s minds, the product of other universities outside the Russell Group is somehow inferior therefore not worthy of attracting international students,” he said.
“That would be hugely detrimental, certainly to universities in the Northeast of England, who actually have a very good product and are producing good students with good quality degrees.
“So I really do hope you can put on the record secretary of state that this is definitely not in the thinking of the DfE or other colleagues around the cabinet table.”
Keegan was “very happy to put that on the record”, but added that continual assurance on quality is required.
Analysis by Times Higher Education has found that two-thirds of English universities are failing to meet outcomes benchmarks introduced by the Office for Students on October 3 in every subject.
“It is a big investment going to university and you need to make sure that you get the quality… that’s for every student, to make sure that we have very good quality courses and continually make sure that they are meeting the needs of business and employers,” Keegan added.
Fletcher also asked the minister to confirm the department is looking into masters students bringing dependants to the UK, amid concerns that they are putting an additional “strain on society”.
“First of all, the vast majority of international students are probably undergraduates, not postgraduates, and the exception in terms of being able to bring a family member over, you have to also be able to fund your family members as well… there are conditions attached to it,” the minister responded.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in 2020/21, of the 605,130 international students in the UK, postgraduate students made up 290,295 of enrolments.
“Immigration is a Home Office lead… we always will work with the Home Office to make sure that we’re getting the systems right,” Keegan continued.
“But I think actually, if you look at international students and that 605,000, there’s probably a very small number who have actually brought over dependants.”
There were 476,389 sponsored study visas issued to main applicants in the year to September 2022, while of all sponsored study related visas a fifth (20%) were to family members of students. In total, dependants reached 116,321 visas – up from 6% (16,047) in 2019.
One way to ensure that the UK is attracting more international students from a wider range of countries is through its visa system, the education department’s permanent secretary, Susan Acland-Hood, highlighted.
“We know that they go home at the end of the period of study”
Masters and PhD students bringing dependants must be able to demonstrate that they can support their family, and are subject to an NHS surcharge, she reminded.
“Also we know that they go home at the end of the period of study,” she said.
Previous exit checks in 2017 showed that 97% of international students left the UK after finishing their studies, while 2016 Home Office-commissioned analysis found only 1% of students overstayed their visas. More recent data on student overstay is not widely available.
The UK has since introduced its graduate route allowing international graduates to remain in the country after completing their studies for two years, and up to three years for PhD and doctoral students.
From Q3 2021 to Q3 2022, a total of 83,486 graduate visas were granted.
“This is one we have to think really carefully about and balance because this is part of our international student visa offer and it’s very similar to what our competitors around the world will offer,” Acland-Hood said.
“If we make change to it, we need to accept that that means our ability to attract the best students from around the world is going to be reduced.
“If you look at the places where students are most ready to come without the ability to bring dependants, it’s China. So the ability to bring dependants is also something that helps us to make sure we’re able to attract the best international students from all around the world and that our institutions are not overdependent on the single places.”
The department was also quizzed on medical placements for international students.
Earlier this week, The Times reported that new medical courses at Worcester, Brunel and Chester universities have catered for international students as a result of the lack of funding for domestic students.
Flick Drummond, MP for Meon Valley, asked whether the department had plans to ensure that UK students would be able to enrol on the courses.
“We’re investing in medical schools,” Keegan said. “We’re investing in more and more medical places [and] we know there is a challenge with medical places.
“Let me take that away and look specifically at that… There shouldn’t be a school that’s got 100% [international]. That sounds a bit excessive, but I guess… when you’re starting up, you’ve got these students you attract first, and it is probably a financial [matter] as well.”