UK home office ‘pulling in opposite direction’ on international education agenda


Last week The PIE reported that home secretary Suella Braverman would be analyzing the number of dependants international students bring with them to the UK. The Home Office confirmed the government will set out a plan in the coming weeks to “ensure the immigration system supports growth whilst maintaining control”.

In a Telegraph fringe event at the Tory party conference this week, the home secretary called for fewer international students to come to the UK to study at specific institutions.

“Poor universities are being bankrolled by students”

“I think we have too many students who are coming into this country who are propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions. I think poor universities are being bankrolled by students and I would really like to see that number come down.”

It is not clear which institutions she was referring to.

Recent research found that tuition fees from non-EU students represented 17% of UK universities’ total income during the 2020/21 academic year.

This is compared to UK-domiciled students, who make up 78% of all UK HE students, who contributed 31% of UK universities’ total annual income, while EU students, who made up 6% of total students, contributed 3%. The home secretary did not suggest other sources of funding for the UK’s universities.

Braverman previously told The Sun on Sunday that “too many” low skilled workers are coming to the UK, and reiterated comments about dependents of international students ‘piggybacking’ on their student visas.

“You can get a student visa and bring family members. I would say if you are coming here for an undergraduate degree, is it justifiable that you bring your family members? No,” Braverman added at the session on October 4.

On October 3, she acknowledged that “students are a great thing because they’re coming here to study and get skills”, but called for “a more discerning, smart approach” on student visas.

The UK met its target of hosting 600,000 international students by 2030 a decade early, which Universities UK International has said should be seen as a “resounding success” for the government and something to be celebrated rather than being a problem.

“Now is the time to build on the UK’s leading position in international higher education,” Jamie Arrowsmith, UUKi acting director, said.

“This does not mean pursuing growth at any cost – indeed, now that the government’s ambition has been met, the focus should be on fostering sustainable growth, diversifying the pool of international students, and maintaining our position as the second most popular destination behind the US,” he continued.

“To do so, we should continue to welcome international students to the UK, and value the contribution that they – and their families – make to our country.”

UK stakeholders have said the comments coming from the Home Office bring a “depressing sense of déjà vu”.

“Listening to Braverman’s assertions, it all sounds depressingly familiar,” founder and director of Vicky Lewis Consulting Vicky Lewis told The PIE. “Back in the days when Theresa May was home secretary, the rhetoric was similar.”

Suella Braverman was appointed Secretary of State for the Home Department on 6 September 2022. Photo: Wikimedia

Theresa May was home secretary from 2010 to 2016 and leading the department when the UK’s post-study work offer was repealed in 2012.

In the seven years after the opportunity was restricted, the UK treasury lost just over £1 billion in tax. The restriction was also blamed for a sharp drop in numbers of international students opting to study in the UK, particularly from South Asia.

The 2019 announcement that post-graduation work rights would be reintroduced for the 2020/21 academic year led to “just under 20% year-on-year growth” in 2019. It has been widely welcomed by the sector as adding to the UK’s attractiveness .

“I think many people both within and outside the higher education sector will be surprised to see international students cited as another instance of the need to control immigration, infelicitously in the same interview where the home secretary talks about ‘foreign paedophiles, murderers and other convicted criminals’,” said Mike Winter OBE director of International Affairs, University of London.

“This seems to ignore the government’s own International Education Strategy, which highlights the benefits that international students bring to the UK. Aside from the well-known economic impact of inward recruitment, there is the very significant soft power that these networks and relationships bring long after the students have returned home,” he told The PIE.

The UK International Education Strategy – updated in 2021 – promised to “boost” the country’s education exports to reach £35 billion annually by 2030.

Policy manager at UUK, Harry Anderson also pointed out that a cabinet office press release stated that the GREAT ‘Study UK’ campaign is set to generate £407m of investment right across the UK from international students registered in 2021/22.

“UK higher education rightly has a global reputation for quality, not only in attracting talent to Britain, but also in our very considerable transnational provision. This should be further enhanced, not undermined,” Winter added.

“Once again, the Home Office appears to be pulling in the opposite direction to other government departments,” Lewis continued.

“Until recently, there was a cross-government consensus (evidenced by the UK International Education Strategy) that recruiting international students was a positive thing. Now that hard, consensus-building work is at risk of being undermined.

“Braverman seeks to link her concerns about the numbers of international students coming to the UK to the ‘agenda for growth’, questioning whether they are contributing economically.”

However this position ignores evidence showing they contribute at least £28.8bn per year to the UK economy, as well as the cross-subsidy their fees provide for research that “will help power economic growth, not to mention the wider benefits they bring to our communities”, Lewis added.

Ruth Arnold, who confounded the #WeAreInternational campaign, highlighted that international students are “fundamental to the success of our universities and a key source of strength in the UK economy”.

“It would be dangerous to in any way undermine the consensus of cross-department backing for an explicitly pro-growth International Education Strategy,” she was warned.

“A globally competitive welcome for international students is vital to UK universities’ ability to recruit”

A globally competitive welcome for international students is vital to UK universities’ ability to recruit and retain the talent they need to be global leaders, especially given the major cross subsidy of high cost subjects, research and civic benefit.

“To risk that would be potentially economically and educationally shooting ourselves in the foot, so it is essential those parts of government focused on economic growth and the HE sector work together to hold the line on the UK’s recent successes in welcoming international students. I’m confident every effort is being extended to ensure that remains the case.”

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