"Open for business, closed to foreigners"

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Sir David Warren exposes the economic dangers to the UK of confusing foreign students with migrants

A recent “Times” article, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2016-10-13/news/ministers-hide-report-on-migrant-numbers-dv8dbj7cz#main-container , revealing that only 1% of students break the terms of their visa by overstaying at the end of their course is yet more evidence undermining the assumptions behind government policy in this area.

Since the Coalition Government committed themselves in 2010 to reducing net migration to “tens of thousands”, Ministers have found themselves impaled on a policy impossible to achieve without doing serious damage to the British economy in the process. This is particularly true in the area of international students.

The Government argues that higher education is still high among its priorities. Why, then is it making it harder for universities to recruit foreign students, by insisting on including them in in its target to reduce net migration?

For a time, the Government argued that the aim was simply to maintain as much leverage as possible over overall numbers of people coming into Britain. Its aim is to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. It denied that the intention is to have fewer international students.

Amber Rudd’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month pointed in a very different direction. In suggesting that student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and educational institution, she appeared to be arguing that a way needed to be found to reduce the number of foreign students in Britain – despite the fact that higher education is one of our most successful exports. 

Each foreign student brings on average £26,000 into the British economy. The 2015 Autumn Statement announced a target of £30 billion education exports by 2020, with a projected increase of 7% in student numbers in the next two years. Is this now ancient history?

The figures for enrolments were already static, if not beginning to turn down. 2015 enrolments from outside the EU were up 0.6%, to 312,000. But this appears to be people staying longer on their existing study courses. New enrolments were down 2.8%, to 174,000. Indian numbers were down 7%: they have more than halved since 2010. Chinese numbers have risen by 33% since 2010, but the rate of increase in 2015 – 2% – shows a slowing down.

Our competitors are doing better. International student enrolments in Australia were up 9.2% in 2015. In the US, they rose 10%, with enrolments from India up nearly 30% alone and from China nearly 11%. We are being consistently outpaced by the major English-speaking countries. It can’t be a coincidence that the UK is the only country with a net migration target which lumps students in with immigrants with a route to permanent settlement

The Government is committed to introducing more competition into higher education. It has lifted the cap on student numbers at individual institutions and is smoothing the way for new providers to enter the system. It wants to introduce a framework to reward high-quality teaching, in the same way that high-quality research brings more money to high-performing institutions.

Meanwhile, government grants are being cut, cost pressures – especially pension liabilities as sterling tumbles post-referendum – grow, and the 18 to 20-year old cohort, from which most domestic students will be drawn, will be shrinking in the UK over the next four years.

Continuing to attract the brightest and best from around the world will be essential for universities to stay internationally competitive – quite apart from the enormous benefits from having a centre of excellence that can help to shape the attitudes of the next generation of influential thinkers worldwide.

The Government’s policy is dysfunctional. On the one hand, it sees foreign students as an economic and social asset and wants to encourage them. On the other, it sees them as migrants and wants to control and reduce the numbers.

And the Home Secretary’s casual disparaging of the sector, with her implication that a small number of universities are high-quality, while the rest are simply subverting the rules, diminishes the image of British higher education worldwide.

Meanwhile, as the “Times” article shows, the actual problem the policy is supposed to address – over-stayers – is miniscule.

Open for business: closed to foreigners – not the most convincing slogan with which to exploit the “opportunities” of Brexit. It is still not too late for the Government to develop a more coherent policy, take the students out of the numbers, and present a more convincing face to the world.

Sir David Warren is a member of the Migration Matters Trust Advisory Board and Chair of the Council of the University of Kent