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UKCISA: focus on soft power, opportunities for change post-referendum

Amid the uncertainty in the UK’s international education sector brought about by the EU referendum result announced last month, the Brexit vote could provide an opportunity for stakeholders to change attitudes about international students in the country.

Paul Blomfield addresses delegates at the UKCISA conference in Sheffield. Photo: The PIE News

The referendum result has also reignited the debate about taking international students out of the net migration figures.

At the UKCISA conference last week, stakeholders suggested the referendum provides a chance to reopen the debate on taking international students out of the net migration figures and key policy areas impacting the FE and HE sectors.

At the event, held at the University of Sheffield, delegates were urged to take the opportunity to extol both the financial and soft power benefits that international students bring to the UK.

Institutions’ support services were also highlighted as being even more important amid the current uncertainty.

“I think that we need to make what we can of the situation to renew the case for international students”

Speaking to delegates last Friday, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, Paul Blomfield, said that the government must be worried about the economic shock of Brexit, and will be concerned about the impact on universities.

“They know that universities will be hit by the impact on research funding, and they won’t want further reductions for the critical income stream,” he said.

“So I think that we need to make what we can of the situation to renew the case for international students.”

The referendum result has also reignited the debate about taking international students out of the net migration figures.

Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCISA, said what is needed is a “political moment” for politicians to reassess the way that international students are being treated.

“This could be, with all the cards up in the air, the political moment which would give them the pretext to say we now are in a different landscape and we can take a different attitude,” he said.

Speaking to The PIE News, Blomfield said that as much of the dialogue focuses on the economy, it is necessary to look at how successful the education sector is as an export.

“I think we need to focus minds in government on the way in which taking students out of net migration targets and reviewing some of the related policies will enable them to boost those exports in what is a growing market,” he said.

Furthermore, there needs to be more focus on the arguments for the soft power benefits that international students bring, said Blomfield.

“[As] we are through the Brexit vote signalling that we’re closing doors on the world, I think that we should be recognising the opportunities of having future world leaders, business and politics, studying in our universities,” he commented.

“The benefits that brings is a case we should be making.”

“Never, never have students been more worried”

“These are really challenging times, but let’s try to be positive,” Blomfield enjoined. “Let’s try to focus on where we can see glimmers of light to exploit, and see what opportunities we can create, because that’s what’s right for our colleges, universities and our country.”

However, delegates were reminded they may have work to do as regulatory change is not on the government’s immediate agenda.

Representatives from UKVI said that there is not likely to be a change in post-study work regulations, nor a removal of international students from net migration figures.

Since the result was announced on the morning of June 24, the international education industry has experienced a great deal of uncertainty, with worry that students will be deterred from studying in the UK.

However, delegates at the conference noted that university support services are more critical than ever.

“If there was ever a time when university advice and support services were necessary, that there was ever a time when UKCISA had a mission, it’s actually now, because never, never have students been more worried,” Scott said.

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