four students of different nationalities sitting at the library, with one of them giving their female instructor a high five

The UK Government is Wrong:

We need more international students, not fewer

“Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan”.

 

This is a well-known proverb with a clear meaning. We truly desire to take credit for success while shying away from the responsibility for failure. Among other things, as humans, we rarely disown a success story, much less seek to reverse it.

 

Despite its continued success, the UK government is actively trying to make an orphan out of one of its strongest public policies in recent years. Here, I am of course referring to its universities’ favourable and attractive outlook for international students to study in Britain.

 

On 25 November 2022, the government announced considerations towards student visa rules. This applies to both undergraduates and postgraduates, ranging from:

 

  • Allowing admissions to only the top universities in the UK,

 

  • Restricting the degree programmes that can be applied for,

 

  • Limiting or nullifying the ability to bring dependants,

 

  • Or a combination of all of the above.

 

It would be easy to dismiss this as a solution in search of a problem. But it is worth considering the possible impact if the UK government goes ahead with new restrictions like these and why they would be harmful to everyone.

“In these unprecedented times, the internationalisation of education is vital. It will support the recovery and growth of this sector as well as help realise the many economic benefits that education exports bring to the UK. The networks created help the UK forge lasting relationships with countries around the world and strengthen our Global Britain agenda.”

 

This is just an excerpt from the government’s official International Education Strategy. The concerted effort of increasing student visa numbers to at least 600,000 by 2030 is moving consistently. According to the latest statistics, the yearly amount of student visas issued is approximately 476,000 per annum. This equates to roughly 79% of the government goal set for the next 8-year period.

 

With this in mind, confusion ensues since nobody is certain whether the government is unaware of its own target, is reversing the policy or is pretending it is non-existent.

Overall Contributions by International Students

 

Considering the undisputable benefits of international students which I will discuss, the government would be right to set the above target.

 

According to recent data, international students contribute close to £30 billion to the economy every year. Universities themselves are also unequivocal about their need for international students, specifically in:

 

  • Their research, as well as,

 

  • Innovation and development programmes

 

Both of the above are continual supplements for universities, in bolstering both their intellectual and financial capital.

 

It is likely that without them, many UK universities would find themselves unable to fund research and development at the existing levels. What is even more concerning in this external environment is the institutions’ visible vulnerability to insolvency.

 

This is majorly due to international students paying between £10,000 and £26,000 annually depending on the institution and the programme of study. In contrast, tuition fees for a standard undergraduate degree for citizens and settled persons are capped at £9,250 per year. The case for postgraduates shows even more variance in fees even though their programmes are considerably shorter.

 

The paradox is then while international students pay more than their local counterparts, this amount would be less than what they would be paying at an equivalent university in the United States of America, Australia, Canada or Singapore, for example.

Is it really all about the money?

 

It is not all about money of course. 18% of the fastest-growing UK tech companies were created by founders from outside the country. This clearly suggests a great environment for the entrepreneurially minded as education at British universities provides the necessary foundation.

 

While students from all over the world are offered to turn ideas into thriving businesses, the UK is dwarfed by the likes of the United States. Statistics show a majority of successful start-up founders actually being from other countries, at an impressive 55%. Even those who choose to return to their home countries after their graduation will not sever all their links with the UK and will likely maintain connections for international collaborations, partnerships, business deals and much more than will be mutually beneficial to the UK, the countries of the students and the students themselves.

 

Findings such as this should have and retain their importance for UK policymakers as many countries would be more than happy to take the talent that the UK will not accept.

 

Adding the current labour and skills shortages to the mix, international students are still highly desirable. Many sectors, keep seeking highly-educated and skilled workers despite their vocality. The National Health Service, in particular, has a high number of vacancies and will always be happy to take bright healthcare graduates. Beyond health and social care, there are shortages in sectors such as IT, laboratory technicians, creatives, educators, and many more. You may refer further to the Shortage Occupations List (SOL), which is due for review early next year.

A Mutually Beneficial Agreement

 

There is more to life than just money and jobs, however, the advantages of integrating more international students are highly apparent. In exchange for high-quality education, students provide funding to universities while contributing to their academic standing at the same time. British universities are a staple in ‘top 10’ and ‘top 100’ best university lists. This is an impressive feat because many competitors are presumably bigger and richer countries with higher financial stability.

 

The long-term impact of each highly educated individual far outweighs the personal impact of their careers and the salaries they make. British institutions do instill a love for learning and knowledge that lasts a lifetime. Students are also provided with a wide variety of extracurriculars in the form of clubs and sports teams. Extracurriculars outside schools are also enticing for most, such as :

 

  • Participating and supporting a variety of sports,

 

  • A rooted live music scene spanning concerts and acts of varying scales,

 

  • Multicultural atmosphere,

 

  • Ease of access to Europe, 

 

Not to mention the language they learn their subjects in is a global one. Essentially, this brings students one step closer to becoming global citizens.

 

As for the UK itself, there is much to be gained from international students. Students returning home who have enjoyed their experience studying in the UK will maintain a knowledge and affection that can have huge value for the UK, ranging from tangible diplomatic power in the geopolitical arena to lifelong friendships between people who otherwise may never have met. It is arguably the UK’s most effective instrument of soft power, and its value is priceless.

Implications

 

As with many priceless things, it is something that is much easier to break than to build, and once broken, may be beyond fixing. A reputation for a world-class education is one thing, but so is a reputation as an unwelcoming country that will take one of its most valuable exports for granted can be hard to shift. Even if there are no new restrictions imposed, the fact that it was even suggested will make students thinking of coming to the UK think twice, especially against a backdrop of years of ugly anti-immigration rhetoric from the UK government. Countries like the US, Germany, France and Canada will be more than happy to take advantage of this stance.

 

The UK government should not be trying to destroy one of its country’s most valuable products and instead should be doing even more to encourage international students to come to the UK.

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