by Simon Marginson

How to turn an environment from hostile to friendly

The UK is falling behind when it comes to attracting students from other countries. Despite a disappointing report from the Migration Advisory Committee, there are steps that can be taken to remedy the situation, says Professor Simon Marginson in Research Fortnight.

This week saw the publication of a report—Staying Ahead: Are international students going under?—that had the sole objective of restrengthening education exports in the national interest. Compiled by the Higher Education Commission, an independent body of leaders from education, industry and the three major political parties, it involved an extensive public inquiry and parliamentary hearings.

The number of international students coming to the UK has changed little for more than half a decade, except that numbers from China are up and numbers from some other countries are down. In contrast, on the world scale, cross-border student movement is growing rapidly. The UK is losing its market share.

The most recent edition of the OECD’s Education at a Glance, released on Tuesday in Paris, shows that the worldwide number of students on the move grew by 9 per cent in 2014, 7 per cent in 2015 and 6 per cent in 2016. It has been widely predicted that in 2018 or 2019, the UK will slip from number two education export nation to number three, with Australia (buoyed by growth in students from India) overtaking it for the first time.

The problem is primarily on the supply side, although demand is now trending downwards as well. Recent UK policy regarding onshore international education in the UK has been highly contrary and contentious. Exports have taken a battering.

Unwelcome feeling

The anti-migration feeling that peaked around the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016 was never particularly directed at international students, but it made many feel unwelcome. That feeling lingers.

Government policy on education exports, meanwhile, has been all over the place. Political ground has been ceded to the anti-migration backlash in a setting in which economic migration is inevitable in today’s world, while there has been a failure to cut net migration from 300,000 to 100,000 as successive prime ministers have promised.

On the one hand, successive education ministers have set targets and talked up the value of international education for local communities, local students and UK soft power. There is little debate to be had about the many benefits of international education for the country—or the fact that there are no downsides to this industry at all. This week’s report by the Migration Advisory Committee found that education exports contributed £17.6 billion to the UK in 2015, including £12.9bn from higher education. The Universities UK estimate is a contribution of £13.1bn in higher education in 2014-15, plus £1bn in spending by associated overseas visitors.

On the other hand, successive Home Office ministers have promised to slash incoming international student numbers and have refused to take students out of the migration count. The government has administered international education within a migration policy setting in which the headline principle is “creating a hostile environment”.

Tough talk on migration

The “hostility” is meant to be directed at migration cheats, not students. No doubt the government has hoped to build political credibility by talking tough on migration, but in the heavy hands of the Home Office, the “hostile environment” catches the law-abiding and the virtuous more effectively than the unwanted.

As the MAC report stated, there is no evidence of a significant problem with students overstaying in the UK. Yet prospective international students entering the UK face more difficult costs, processes and rules than their counterparts entering Australia or Canada.

The result has been a long period of slow or no growth in international education, with numbers flatlining thanks to the combination of policy and regulation. There have been more than 5,700 changes to the immigration rules, including international student rules, since 2010. Numbers have been kept down by expensive and bureaucratic visa processing, hostile questioning of applicants, increased surveillance of visa holders, selective increases in institutional numbers as approved by the Home Office, and regulatory discrimination against certain categories of education providers (further education, private colleges and designated “second tier” higher education institutions).

It does not have to be like this, and it has been bad for all parties. Over its six public sessions, and through the weight of a consistent set of submissions from across the export industry, the HEC inquiry heard extensive evidence on the economic benefits of international education, not just in London and major cities but in all regions of the UK—evidence summarised in Staying Ahead.

The commission also heard that the revenues brought by international students have been crucial in maintaining the broad range of curriculum offerings and that, as the MAC report noted, “There is no evidence of problems stemming from the impact of international students on the wider community.”

What about research?

The commission’s report points out that international education is not only a vital part of the UK’s first degree and taught masters education (and schools and further education) but also fundamental to research. The OECD’s Education at a Glance makes the same point. It notes that in many countries, mobile doctoral students have become central to research capacity, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Competition for the best doctoral students is fierce. This is especially important for the UK. Higher Education Statistics Agency data show that in 2016-17, no fewer than 42.1 per cent of all doctoral students in the UK were non-UK citizens, including 28.8 per cent from non-European Union countries and 13.3 per cent from the EU. The non-UK student share of all PhDs was 51.9 per cent in maths, 58.2 per cent in computer science, and 59.1 per cent in engineering and technology.

Unfortunately, the MAC report failed to seize the moment and provide the basis for a new government policy, although it had been widely expected to do so.

On the information side, except in one respect (it underplayed the vital contribution of international doctoral students to UK science), the report provided an excellent summary of exports and their positive contributions to the UK, and of the problems affecting the UK’s global competitiveness, such as the more generous post-study work rights on offer in competitor nations. In these areas, the MAC report is a useful point of reference that will dispel lingering myths and uncertainties about international students.

Nonsense arguments

However, the MAC report avoided all the contentious issues. It simply called on higher education to “align” its views more closely with those of the government, which, it said, was committed to growing exports—as if the real problem in international education policy for the past half decade and more has been a lack of understanding.

The MAC turned a blind eye to the tension in government policy between supporting international education and promising to slash migration (with students included in the net migration target earmarked for reduction), and regulating education exports so as to flatline growth. It ducked all of the issues that have arisen around the processing of visas and students by the Home Office.

On the vital issue of post-study work rights, the MAC provided most of the argument for reopening this avenue on a competitive basis but then failed to draw the obvious conclusion. It merely recommended a minor liberalisation of job-search times and visa processing.

Its reasons for refusing to propose a new visa were spurious: that “demand for UK education should not be based on work rights”, which is nonsense, as everyone knows that in some cases education intentions and migration intentions overlap, and student families have to find ways of paying for the high cost of living and studying in the UK; and that when the previous post-study visas applied in the UK, “some graduates” worked in low-paid jobs. It is always the case that some graduates, whoever they are, will work in low-paid jobs immediately after graduation.

And the answer is…

What, then, can be done?

  • The Home Office should establish a “friendly environment policy” for international students, with improved post-study work options and streamlined visa processes to match our competitors such as Australia.
  • The Department for Education, supported by the Home Office, should roll out an improved Tier 4 pilot based on recruiting from target growth countries such as India and Nigeria.
  • The Home Office must simplify visa procedures and reduce burdens on Tier 4 university sponsors.
  • The Department for International Trade must reinvigorate the “Education is GREAT” campaign, working with universities to maximise impact.
  • The Department for International Development should allocate a proportion of foreign aid spending to providing scholarships and pathway programmes, match-funded by universities.
  • The Home Office and the British Council should review the number and location of English language test centres to attract the brightest and best students, not the richest.
  • The government should immediately announce a continuation of home fee status for EU students in 2020 and beyond.

A whole-of-government approach must be adopted and a firm national target for education exports should be set. Education policy and migration policy should support each other in a common commitment to that target. Only then can the UK stay ahead of its competitors in attracting international students and strengthening education exports.