It has now been almost four months since the tumultuous events that led to the installation of a new Prime Minister in Downing Street. As soon as it became apparent that Mrs May was certain to replace David Cameron, I was reminded of a blog that I posted on 29 November 2010, when I was vice-chancellor of the University of Essex. Theresa May was Home Secretary and I was very concerned about the Home Office plans not just to clamp down on visa fraud and bogus colleges – measures of which universities were very supportive – but to make it more difficult, expensive and time-consuming for students to obtain a visa to come and study at UK universities. Plans to remove their ability to stay on afterwards and work only added to those concerns. In that post I pointed out that contrary to some perceptions, international students do not take places away from home students, and that in order to thrive, universities must attract applicants who have the ability and potential to succeed, wherever in the world they may be found. International students were not migrants, I argued; they were students. By implication, they should not count in the net migration figures that the government wished and wishes to reduce. I made a range of other arguments, setting out the ground for a campaign which, through UUK and other means, we have maintained ever since. Recent events have, I believe, made it necessary to rehearse those arguments again, particularly in the light of new developments.
One of the reasons we were given was the alleged problem of students illegally overstaying their visas. Back in 2010 I had this to say on the matter: ‘There appears to be a fear that too many students stay in the country once they have finished their studies. The problem here is in part the way the data is collected and accounted for. I won’t go into the detail, but I believe we can show that the vast majority of overseas students do return to their home countries in due course, or if they remain, do so quite legitimately.’ Since 2010 the Home Office has based its estimate of overstayers on highly unreliable data gleaned from the International Passenger Survey, which does not track individual students and cannot take account of differing lengths of study. While overstayers have been represented as amounting to between 80,000 and 90,000, which would be a considerable proportion of those who come here to study in the first place, it now seems to be clear that the true figure is indeed very much smaller; under 2% and well within the bounds that we had always claimed it to be. This new figure is based on a study which the Home Office commissioned but had not publicly released (it was revealed through a Freedom of Information request). One of the main arguments used for the necessity to reduce the numbers of students coming to the UK therefore falls, although we have yet to see the Home Office concede the point.
The speech given by the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, at the Conservative conference maintained the rhetoric that we have become used to. The new government seems impervious to the suggestion that much the best course of action would be to cease regarding students as migrants. While this is consistent with the position Theresa May held as Home Secretary, it defies logic. UUK has twice surveyed the public, most recently earlier this month, and the results are very much as other surveys have found. More than 70% of those who expressed a view were content with international student numbers and indeed would support a policy that boosted numbers further. Less than a quarter regard students as immigrants, and almost three quarters would favour allowing international students to work here for a period after they graduate. There is no evidence that the majority of the public regard students as a problem. There is therefore not a political issue here. Whilst we know that the public does have deep concerns about immigration, international students do not feature strongly in those concerns.
By contrast, there is strong evidence of the economic benefit that international students bring to the UK, conservatively estimated at £10.7bn annually. This is evidence that nobody has seriously challenged. And the benefits brought by international students extend well beyond the economic, as again I pointed out in 2010. Once they graduate, I said, many international students ‘remain firm friends of their universities and of the UK. As they make their career and gain in influence, the effect on “soft power” is considerable. Quite apart from the vibrancy and cultural diversity they bring to UK campuses, overseas students are a long-term asset to the cultural and trading partnerships of this country.’
It was therefore all the more disappointing, if not entirely unexpected, to hear the Home Secretary at the Conservative conference floating new proposals to restrict the numbers of international students coming to the UK. Amber Rudd’s suggestion that visas should be issued differentially depending on the quality of the universities concerned is fraught with difficulty. How is that quality to be ascertained? The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework has not been designed for the purpose of controlling student visas. It takes little account of international students per se and focuses very much on undergraduates, while the majority of international students are postgraduate. There has been a pilot, not yet completed, which would take a risk-based approach using visa refusal rates (the proportion of visa applications that are unsuccessful across each university). While the visa refusal rate at Cardiff is extremely low, it is clear that such an approach could tend to discriminate against smaller universities where a very small number of refusals could have a large proportionate effect, and may in any case say more about the application process than the applicant or the university concerned.
We have enough issues to deal with following the Brexit vote. The sentiments expressed by the Home Secretary send out entirely the wrong message at a time when we should be entering a new era where the UK is open to the world. It makes no economic sense, and will contribute nothing to the improvements we need to make in social cohesion following the rifts that have opened up since June 23. These latest developments in the long-running saga of changes to the visa regime for international students present us with perhaps the biggest risk following Brexit. The irony is that they are in large part an almost accidental consequence of the manoeuvring within the Conservative Party following the resignation of Mr Cameron. There is nothing in the process of exiting the European Union that demands this approach. Indeed there is much to be said for the opposite. We must argue strongly for international students to be treated as students, not migrants, for the return of the post-study work visa and for the opportunity for universities to contribute fully to the new world of international exchange that is envisaged for a post-EU Britain.
With best wishes