The government has a matter of weeks in which to change student visas and head off a collapse in overseas recruitment, Universities UK has warned.
In a statement released today (Friday 5 June), the organisation representing 137 of the nation’s higher education providers signalled the urgent need for action by telling ministers that “the clock is ticking”.
Following a week in which UUK laid out “high-level guidance” to its members on reopening campuses this autumn, the organisation’s president said government announcements on student visas must “keep pace” with the sector’s progress.
Various studies and surveys have been announced that signal that the sector could face a huge drop in international student numbers this year, as students weigh up the value of blended learning options.
A British Council survey revealed that 40% of prospective students in China were undecided about whether to cancel their studies in the UK. Only 12% reported that they were still most likely to take up their place as planned. A survey of students from India and Pakistan was slightly more positive for the sector.
UUK wants the government to ensure the student visa system allows for flexible and blended approaches to teaching this autumn. It is calling for the government to confirm to overseas applicants that online study will not disqualify students from the new graduate route that is set to be introduced in 2021 and which gives students post-study working opportunities in the UK.
Government should extend the visa application window from three months to six months and extend tier four visa rules to include online study. Without this action, UUK said, the HE sector risks losing these applicants to overseas competitors.
Prof Julia Buckingham, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said “assurances must be given that new ways of learning will not penalise them now or in the future”.
She added: “We have a short window to convince undecided applicants that they can plan with confidence to study in the UK this autumn. This needs action by government as well as universities.
“It is excellent news that the UK government has confirmed the graduate route will be in place by summer 2021, and that visa application centres are starting to reopen. Universities are now sharing plans setting out how they will welcome students this autumn, combining face-to-face teaching where possible with online delivery to ensure students are safe.
“Yet changes to the visa system to keep pace with the changes to teaching are now urgent. This is important for students who might be reserving final judgments about whether to come to the UK or not in the autumn.”
The government announced today that vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter has been named by the department for international trade as its new international education champion.
Exeter University chief Sir Steve Smith will be help convey the sector’s message to an international audience.
Prof Buckingham said she believed Sir Steve “can play a key role in emphasising to government the need for action” on student visas.
Sir Steve is due to stand down as vice-chancellor at the end of this academic year.