Higher Education is in the rudest of health, so why suggest otherwise?

By Sir Andrew Green
Chairman of Migration Watch UK
Conservativehome Blog, 22 November, 2014 

The UK is one of the most attractive countries in the world to come to study. But if you listened only to Mark Field, the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, you might be forgiven for being concerned about the future of British Higher Education.

Since the Government introduced their much needed reforms to the broken immigration system Mark Field has been regularly sounding his claxon (see, for example, his piece a week ago today on this site), no doubt lobbied by big business and the Universities in his constituency, to warn of dire effects on the education and business sector. Yet his arguments just do not add up.

To begin with, let’s dispel the myth that the Government has tightened up” on University students.  They have done nothing of the sort. In fact, the reforms to the student visa system in 2012 were aimed at below degree level study, and Universities were left virtually untouched. So here are a few realities:

  • There is no limit to the number of non-EU students that Universities can recruit.
  • Non-EU students only require an offer of a full time place at a UK University and enough money to support themselves and pay for their course in order to be granted a visa.
  • There is no requirement that University students meet certain English language competency thresholds since Universities are given the discretion to make these decisions themselves.
  • University students can work up to 20 hours during term time and full time out of term time.
  • University students can remain in the UK for an additional four months after they complete their studies in order to search for work or enjoy the rest of their summer.
  • University students can switch into Tier 2 and stay in the UK for work in unlimited numbers so long as they can find a graduate level job paying a minimum of £20,500. Students are not subject to a resident labour market test and are not subject to the cap of 20,700 visas for those applying outside of the country.

This is a hugely generous offer, and explains why the UK receives more international students than any other country except the United States which is five times the size of the UK in terms of population. (For more on how UK student visa rules compare to other English speaking countries, see here)

The most recent data on global trends in international students showed that the US attracted 16.5 per cent of students, while the UK was a close second, attracting 12 per cent, followed by Germany with 6.3 per cent.

Of course, these market shares might fall in the future as new destinations emerge and countries expand their own university sectors to cater for the growing middle classes, but a fall in market share need not mean a fall in actual numbers. Indeed, the market share of international students to the US has fallen from 23 per cent in 2000 to 16 per cent in 2011, yet numbers increased by almost a quarter of a million to 710,000.

Since the present government was elected in 2010, the number of university student visa applications to the UK has increased by 17 per cent. There has been a fall in international students, but this has been confined to the college and Further Education sector, partly due to the closure of over 700 bogus colleges.

Field laments the fall in Indian students. Since their height in 2009, Indian student visa grants have fallen dramatically from 58,000 to 13,000 in 2013. Yet in 2009 a significant number of Indian students were completely bogus.  The National Audit Office identified 50,000 bogus students in 2009 alone who may have come for work rather than study and identified India as a major source of bogus students (see here). Visa application centres in India had to be temporarily closed to new applicants amid fears that a huge rise was fuelled by bogus applicants. Moreover, these students were largely studying at below degree level – hence University applicants are on the up.

We greatly value the UK’s university sector; it is a hugely important export market and should be protected. We believe that the government has struck the right balance in reforming the immigration system, targeting problem areas such as bogus students and colleges and leaving the more compliant end of the market relatively untouched. Of course, that does not mean that Universities can have entirely free rein.

Field suggests that University students be removed from the net migration target. We strongly oppose this for two reasons.

First, there is nothing distinct about students that means that they should be removed; if we remove students who come for a period of time, who use housing, transport and health services as well as retaining the right to remain in the UK for work (and possibly settle) then why not remove even more temporary migrants such as a longer term Inter Company Transferees who are not normally able to settle?

Second, if students go home following their studies, they are counted out when they leave as well as in when they arrive and therefore do not add to net migration, negating the need for their removal to begin with.

It surely hardly needs to be said that genuine students are very welcome to the UK and that the Government should be making it clear that the UK is open to them. They add to the vibrancy and learning environment of campuses across the country. They are not the cause of any crisis in higher education, so to perpetuate this myth can only damage the Universities themselves.

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