International student recruitment: end hostile bureaucracy, says Jo Johnson

The former universities minister has called for a four-year post-study work visa to help boost the UK’s appeal to overseas students

Former universities minister Jo Johnson has published a paper calling for international students in the UK to get a four-year post-study work visa.

In ‘Universities open to the world – How to put the bounce back in Global Britain’, Johnson argues that the UK government’s mixed messaging towards international students has damaged its standing as a global destination for study.

He warns that the UK risks losing out to the US, Australia, Canada and China when it comes to international student recruitment. Between 2010 and 2017, the UK lost market share in 17 countries.

“For much of the last decade,” Johnson writes, “the UK Government has run contradictory policies aimed both at increasing education exports, while at the same time managing down international student numbers in a misguided attempt to reduce overall net migration to below 100,000.

“This confusion and ambivalence has created a volatile and unstable policy environment which helps explain why the UK – a perennial world leader in education – has gradually seen its share of the international education market slip over the past ten years.”

Johnson has urged the government to offer potential international students a four-year post-study work visa.

The removal of the two-year post-study work visa in 2012 is considered a major factor in declining rates of international recruitment at UK universities. After campaigning by Johnson and other MPs, it was replaced in September 2019 by a new “graduate route” enabling eligible students to work, or look for work, at any skill level, for a period of two years after completing their courses.

“If the UK is to protect one of the few industries in which it still leads the world, it must take a number of steps to be first out of the blocks. These include a study visa that matches the best in the world, with 4 years’ poststudy work, the transformation of the British Council into a body focused on promotion of study in the UK, and a strategic push to rebalance student flows by doubling those from India within the lifetime of this Parliament,” Johnson writes.

“Failure by a Conservative Government to act to shore up our position in the market for international students would also represent a weakening of an important part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. One of her early and most controversial decisions was to remove the public subsidy for overseas students, to abolish number controls applying to them and to leave overseas student recruitment entirely to the market.

“That bold reform then took us over the next thirty years to 400,000 overseas students and a market share second only to the US. We long ago passed the point where the income our universities earn from overseas students exceeded total Government grant to them for teaching domestic students.

“If we really care about our post-Brexit future as a trading nation, about deregulation and unleashing enterprise, we would be cutting back the time-consuming and offputting red tape affecting overseas students and instead go full throttle to achieve even more ambitious education export objectives.”

The report makes a number of recommendations to the government with regard to boosting the UK’s standing in the eyes of international students:

  • Set a clear ambition to retain global leadership in international education.
  • Send a clear signal that Global Britain is open and welcome, with a “best-in-class student visa offer”
  • Double student numbers from India by 2024
  • Re-focus the British Council on education promotion
  • End the hostile bureaucracy putting international students off the UK
  • Prepare continuity arrangements in light of Covid-19
  • Put liberalisation of trade in education at the heart of free trade agreements
  • Increase transparency in progress towards the targets

Organisations working with international students have welcome Johnson’s comments.

“Our universities are essential to a strong recovery from Covid-19 but their ability to perform this role is financially underpinned by international students, including those from China,” said James Pitman, MD for the UK and Europe at Study Group, which prepares international students for university degree programmes. “This is why the sector welcomes calls for a four-year post-study work visa along with other supportive measures.

“However, the government should go further. To put this country at a true competitive advantage, the government must introduce a single long-term, flexible, study visa to cover the whole student journey from school or pathway to undergraduate, postgraduate and post-study work. This would be a better solution for students, universities and HMRC.”

In a statement released on 5 June, Universities UK told the government that “the clock is ticking” on international student visas, and that without urgent action UK providers would see a drastic and damaging decline in students from overseas.

Jo Johnson is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and president’s professorial fellow at King’s College London.

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