Update on key effects of student visa changes on London’s HE sector

My London Higher colleague Paresh Shah kindly helped to write this piece on student visa changes for my blog. Thanks Paresh!

In December 2014 LSE London published a series of articles on Migration and London’s growth, based on a project funded by a grant from HEFCE’s HEIF 4 programme.  In this blog I’d like to give some updates and personal thoughts on the chapter on Higher education and immigration.

London has a unique concentration of ‘mainstream’ higher education (HE) providers with 40 HE institutions, about 200 alternative providers and at least 15 campus branches and centres run by universities from elsewhere in the UK or from overseas.  As a side note, the lack of an HE Bill encompassing alternative providers by the Coalition Government led to two reports in December 2014. These drew attention to dubious recruitment practices in, and the consequences of a lack of BIS oversight in preventing misuse of taxpayer’s money by, a small number of alternative providers – which are mostly located in the capital.

London is home to about 380,000 students at HE institutions, including 104,000 overseas students, and about 45,000 students at alternative providers, campus centres or on short courses.  Nearly 25% of all overseas students in the UK are in London.  Students from Other EU countries (excluding the UK) and students from outside of the EU (or international) are important for London, with estimates of their contribution to the capital’s economy varying from £1.7 billion, £2.3 billion or £2.5 billion.  Moreover, Other EU and non-EU students also provide unquantifiable ‘soft’ social and cultural benefits both to their universities and their ‘home’ communities, contributing to and enhancing London’s reputation as a World City.

Several important changes were introduced by the Home Office under the last Coalition Government in an attempt to tighten visa entry requirements for individuals from non-EU countries. The aim was of course to  reduce net migration from “the hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.”  An additional reason given for curbing migration of students and workers was that they may cause additional strains on the NHS, rental accommodation and other provisions.  There is however no robust data that shows  ‘migrants’ burden the NHS or are so-called welfare tourists.

We at London Higher surveyed our members in 2012 and 2013 to assess whether changes in visa requirements had an early effect on their recruitment of undergraduate and postgraduate overseas students.  Overall, there appeared to be little immediate shortfall in numbers – but HE institutions had invested a large amount of staff time and other resources to maintain their recruitment levels.  Subsequently ONS figures showed a slight dip in international study visas (see page 23 of the ONS report for May 2015).  Both at a national level and in London international students coming from China and Brazil have increased but there have been large declines in students from India and Pakistan.  Changes in recruitment patterns have also been affected by closing post-study work visas while other countries, for example Canada, are actually offering better opportunities for graduates to gain short-term work experience after completing their studies.

‘Competitor’ countries, such as the USA, Australia and Canada, classify international students separately, and as such they are not counted as long-term migrants.  Such an obvious solution seems to be a step too far for the Home Office, which prefers instead to stick to the 1998 UN definition of ‘migrant’, although there are well recognised differences in terminology in this area.

Finally, if the current Government is intent on reducing net migration, then the negative perceptions of UK as a destination for study will not be limited to international students but be more widely felt among students from other EU countries.  Personally, I feel a ‘perfect storm’ could be brewing with the threat of reduced quotas for skilled international workers, even stricter restrictions on visa entry requirements for non-EU university staff and students, an ‘isolationist’ stance fanned by certain sections of the media, and a potential ‘No’ result for the EU referendum.  The consequences of these would result in a Little Britain, or more correctly Little Englander, attitude that has highly detrimental effects not just the UK’s political influence on the world stage and commerce, but also for education and research and which could take at least a generation to reserve.