Two news stories in particular have caught our eye this week. Here are a few concrete truths in response to a great deal of hot air and very few facts.
On Tuesday the Nobel prize winning British scientist Professor John O’Keefe warned the government that its immigration policies were ‘a very very large obstacle’ to hiring the best scientists. He told the BBC’s Today programme “I am very, very acutely aware of what you have to do if you want to bring people into Britain and to get through immigration, I'm not saying it's impossible, but we should be thinking hard about making Britain a more welcoming place.” 
On the same day Professor Andrew Hamilton, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, told an audience of Oxford academics that he was “baffled” when asked by people overseas ‘why the UK has adopted a visa system so hostile to student entry.’ He went on to claim that the number of international students at UK universities had fallen, most notably from India and claimed that ‘there are few votes in restricting overseas student numbers’. 
With the greatest respect to both Professor O’Keefe and Professor Hamilton these claims are either without evidence or false.
1. Are immigration rules ‘a very very large obstacle’ to hiring a team of scientists?
It is difficult to see how this is the case. To begin with, student scientists can come to UK universities with no limit on their numbers. All that is required is an offer of a place from a UK university and sufficient funds to support oneself. Professor O’Keefe would probably wish to hire post-doctoral scientists who would have to go through a work route, most likely Tier 2. If Professor O’Keefe was unable to recruit from the domestic labour market and the rest of the European Union then scientists from around the world can come to the UK under Tier 2. University College London is already a licensed sponsor and the only delay would be while the visa application was processed, up to 10 weeks or 10 days if the priority service is used. The sole requirement for entry is that the job is a graduate level one (which the job of scientist of course is) and is paid a minimum of £20,500 per year. The route is capped at 20,000 a year however only two thirds of the visas available were taken up in the last year and before that only around half of visas were ever used.
There is also a special route set up by the government for exceptionally talented individuals in the field of Arts and Sciences. The route ‘Tier 1 Exceptional Talent’ is available to those who the Royal Society wish to ‘endorse’. For these individuals there is no minimum income. There are 1,000 visas available in total, 250 of which are allocated to Royal Society endorsements. Just 79 visas were issued last year.
It is difficult to see in practice what obstacles exist to prevent the recruitment of international students. We have asked Professor O’Keefe for details as it is in everyone’s interest that the immigration system does not hamper academic endeavour.
2. Is the UK ‘unwelcoming’ or ‘hostile’ to students?
Professor Hamilton has said that he is asked why the UK is hostile to student entry and that he is baffled by government student immigration policy. Professor O’Keefe believes that the UK should consider how welcoming it is to students, the implication being that we are unwelcoming.
In fact it is difficult to see how the UK could be any more welcoming to international students. Students can come to UK universities with no limit on their numbers. All that is required is an offer of a place from a UK university and sufficient funds to support oneself. The English language requirement needed for other education institutions does not apply to Universities who can decide the level of English required of their students. An unlimited number of students can stay on and work in the UK if they can find graduate level work paying a minimum of £20,500 a year. They can even settle after five years if they earn £35,000 a year.
Professor Hamilton claims that there are few votes in restricting overseas student numbers. We quite agree and it is for this reason that the government is not restricting genuine students. On the other hand, few would agree that the UK should not prevent the entry of bogus students.
3. Has the number of international students at UK universities fallen?
The number of visa applications for study at University is up by 17% since this government was elected in 210. Student visas are down generally but this is because applications for below degree level courses have fallen as a result of a crackdown on abuse. As for international students at UK universities, the total number of non-EU students in 2012/13 was 3,000 fewer than the previous year, falling from 303,000 to 300,000.  However the number of international students remains higher than when the present government took office.
The reality is that the student route more widely has been abused on a significant scale and for that reason the government has reformed the student route. These reforms were targeted at below degree level students, restricting their right to work and bring dependants. Interviews have also been introduced for student applicants bringing the UK into line with international competitors who routinely interview student applicants.
Tightening up the student route in order to tackle abuse was always going to reduce total inflow of students – that was the purpose. However, the number of international students wishing to come to the UK has not fallen – University student visa applications have risen by 17% since 2010.
There can be no easing of the student route which remains open and attractive to prospective university overseas students. Furthermore, student outflow remains just one third of inflow – this means that two thirds of students are staying on either legally or illegally. The universities would do well to concentrate their efforts on demonstrating their students’ compliance with the visa system rather than perpetuating the myth that the UK is unwelcoming to international students.
 BBC News, Nobel Prize winner John O’Keefe concerned over immigration policy, 7 October 2014. URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29504767
 BBC News, 'Harmful' UK student visa policy 'baffles' top academic, 7 October 2014, URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/education-29522229