Could Boris’s government attract more international students?

James Pitman from Study Group says the new prime minister could be good news for higher education if he can encourage more international students to study here

UK universities are facing financial difficulties amid increased competition for applicants, but there is one potential solution to this problem – international students.

Not only can they moderate the financial woes of universities, but they contribute enormously to the UK economy, too. Research from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that just one cohort of international students that stays and works in the UK will pay £3.2bn in taxes. International students also bring cultural benefits to UK universities, benefit domestic students by providing a richer learning environment, sustain jobs in their local communities and often act as ambassadors for the UK when they go on to hold positions of power in business, diplomacy and the arts later in their careers.

However, central government has emanated a negative attitude towards international students over the past eight or so years. Under Theresa May’s reign as home secretary, the UK government withdrew the two-year post-study work visa in a bid to meet immigration targets. This led to a 40% drop in Indian students within 12 months, and the UK proceeded to lose out on £8bn in export earnings from 2013/17, according to research from Universities UK.

The good news for the UK higher education sector is that recent events signal a more positive attitude towards international students, including the UK government’s International Education Strategy, which set a target to grow international student numbers by 30% and boost the economic impact of the industry to £35bn annually by 2030.

Evidence so far suggests that Boris Johnson has a much more welcoming attitude towards international students than his predecessor. Jo Johnson’s resignation is disappointing news for the sector, but the fact that Boris has already signed his brother’s Immigration Bill amendment for the reintroduction of two-year post-study work visas provides reassurance the new government will continue his legacy.


Related news: UUK welcomes student visa rethink


Boris’s attitude so far

As far back as 2006, Boris spoke in favour of the economic benefits of international students, stating in a Politeia report: “It is notable that British academics are showing tremendous entrepreneurial flair and drive in those areas where they have been mostly left to their own devices and are not directly controlled by the state – the recruitment of graduates and international students.”

International students bring cultural benefits to UK universities… and often act as ambassadors for the UK when they go on to hold positions of power in business, diplomacy and the arts

Shortly after becoming prime minister, Boris scrapped May’s target to cut immigration to the tens of thousands. This target wrongly included international students and was long seen as the driving force behind negative rhetoric aimed at them.

By comparison, Boris is exploring an Australian-style points-based system for migration. This will see labour migrants being selected based on factors including education qualifications, language abilities, work experience and occupation, suggesting a more nuanced and considered attitude to immigration in comparison to the previous administration’s arbitrary targets. This will lead to more international students seeing the UK as a favourable place to study, with post-study opportunities likely to be made available in the near future.

A strong relationship with India

In an open letter addressed to the Indian diaspora, Boris described himself as the “son-in-law” of India and called for increased trade between the two countries, stating: “When I was with prime minister Modi, I stressed that the UK and India are two modern democracies who should work closely together to promote trade and prosperity, improve global security and tackle the challenges our countries face.” In another move of support from the Indian community, Tory MP Priti Patel said on Twitter that Boris is “the only candidate with a strong record of support, appreciation and understanding of UK-India relations and the Indian Diaspora”.

Indian students have historically made up a significant proportion of the UK’s international cohort. In 2010–11, up to 39,090 had enrolled in colleges and universities in the UK, but that number has decreased by more than half in recent years. In short, Indian students are an important asset, and we need to make sure they feel welcome to study in the UK. The return of the post-study work visa will be crucial to this.

Trump’s rhetoric

The US has historically been the number one choice for Chinese students, but recent research suggests that might be changing. According to Chinese education consultancy EIC Education, the UK is now the number one choice for Chinese students looking to study abroad. More than a fifth chose the UK, while only 17% chose the United States.

There are a few reasons for this, mainly attributed to Trump’s government.

There is increasing suspicion from US officials that Confucius Institutes on US campuses represent a threat to the country, and the US State Department has tightened restrictions on Chinese applications for student visas. With Donald Trump’s continuing anti-immigration rhetoric, alongside the country’s ongoing trade war and recent visa restrictions, it is reasonable to expect that the US may struggle to recruit Chinese students in coming years.

As a possible result, Study Group has seen an increase in the number of Chinese students applying to pathway programmes in the UK, and the most recent Ucas data reported a 30% jump in Chinese student applications to UK universities for the 2019/20 academic year.

While it’s been a tough few years for international education in the UK, things are beginning to look up. If Boris Johnson can follow through on his previous statements on international students, follow his brother’s recommendations on making changes to post-study work options via the Immigration Bill, and strengthen ties with Indian and Chinese students, we could see, at least in the short term, a significant number of international students flocking to the UK.

James Pitman, Study Group managing director, development UK & Europe