Growth potential – the future of international education

James Pitman, Managing Director UK and Europe at Study Group, reports on the APPG’s draft plan for growth in the international students market

The Higher Education Policy Institute estimates that international students contribute £22.6bn to the British economy every year. Every 15 students from the EU and every 11 non-EU students contribute £1m to the UK economy over the duration of their studies.

Yet, there is no strategy in place nor any policy proposals on the table to help the UK’s international education sector recover market share lost to Canada and Australia. Which is why the proposals put forward by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Students are a most welcome step in the right direction.

The APPG has drafted a sensible plan to kick-start growth in Britain’s seventh-largest export market, based on the evidence submitted to its inquiry. The plan makes a number of recommendations that cover data use to language. It highlights the importance of a cross-departmental strategy, a review of current credibility interview processes and the need for better data collection in order to drive more relevant policies. The plan also asks the government to present a more welcoming face and tone in its approach to students from abroad applying to study in the UK, and to encourage them to pursue local work opportunities with more ease after they have graduated – as does every competitor country.

With high employment rates and significant skills shortages, particularly in STEM areas, it makes no sense to make it difficult for the international students who have gained those skills in their degree studies at our universities to fill those job vacancies.

Hospitality is good for the economy

International students have to pass challenging language tests to study in the UK. Many students have to travel thousands of miles, which they must pay for themselves, to reach the nearest centre to take the required test. This is just one example of the determination, time and effort required to reach the UK as an international student.

In tandem with this, the UK Government often adds unnecessary challenges to the application process. In some instances, international students who simply want to change their course are forcefully ejected from the country to apply for a new visa. There are also reports of the Home Office conducting credibility interviews that reject potential students if they are unable to provide superficial information about their chosen institution – information which would undoubtedly prove challenging to most domestic students. Rather than encouraging international students to study in the UK, the Government has adopted an unwelcoming attitude since 2010, which has driven these students to Australia, Canada and the US – as well as other European destinations. Sadly, this was all part of the ‘hostile environment’ propagated by the Home Office. We should be welcoming talented students, rather than deterring them. If we use all the tools at our disposal, we can attract students who want to study here, thereby contributing to a richer learning environment for domestic students and contributing to our economy – and surely this should be driven by government.

James Pitman

The benefits of a different approach

The changes that need to be made are not difficult to carry out, and the benefits would be significant. Making it easier for international students to study in the UK would give the economy a boost, increase local spending, create local jobs and build stronger relationships with the students’ home countries and other institutions around the world.

Now is the perfect time to grow international education; the Government is bringing forward an important Immigration Bill which will hopefully, among other things, enable new legislation to support and grow education exports. Ministers and taxpayers can breathe easy as these measures will not put additional financial pressure on the British public and, in fact, quite the reverse is true with an opportunity to grow well beyond the current £22.6bn of benefit to the UK each year.

For too long, this Government has treated international students as a problem in need of a solution, rather than as welcome guests that can boost the British economy and bring untold other benefits for our education institutions, domestic students and the soft power of the UK. The only reason ministers might reject the sensible proposals brought forward by the APPG is because of favouritism toward a lingering ideology which comes from the Prime Minister’s time in the Home Office. We need change and we need it now. If we don’t promote growth in international education at a time when we have been presented with easy and efficient ways to do so and at a time of growing global demand, then the UK, its economy, our domestic students and our world-class universities will all suffer.

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