One year on… International students: a policy U-turn

Universities UK has been leading the campaign for almost a decade for creating a better and more competitive post-study-work offering. Alistair Jarvis, CEO of Universities UK, updates us on a pivotal policy change from 2019

UK universities have a well-deserved reputation as one of our nation’s most successful global exports. We welcome over 450,000 students every year from all over the world, bringing with them immense economic and cultural contributions both to other students and universities, and also to the wider communities in which they live.

These students will retain lifelong links with the UK, whether that is in business relationships, cultural interactions or simply returning as tourists. While they are here, they will collectively contribute £26bn to our economy, spread across the UK from Paisley to Plymouth. We know there is broad support among the public for international students and recognition of their immense contributions.

That’s why it is important those students enjoy studying here and feel welcomed by the UK and its policies towards them. Against that first metric, things are going well. We rate number one for international student satisfaction compared to our competitors, with 91% reporting they are satisfied with their experience. The second… well unfortunately for some time that has been a different story.   

Struggling market share

Despite high-quality teaching, learning and research and world-leading facilities, we have been held back by an uncompetitive visa policy. With most international students given no opportunity to stay and work in the UK for more than four months beyond graduation, we’ve seen our market share fail to grow while other global higher education markets continue to expand more quickly. Since 2012, international student enrolments in the UK have grown by only 5% while 31% and 73% growth has been seen in the USA and Australia, respectively.

But there was a particular standout moment for UK higher education in 2019, coming on the eve of Universities UK’s annual conference in September. Downing Street announced a new immigration route for post-study-work – which coincidentally we had first set out at our annual conference almost a year to the day earlier – to allow students to remain in the UK and work for up to two years after completing their studies. 

This policy change means that any international student set to graduate from a higher education provider from summer 2021 onwards should be eligible to remain after their studies and start their careers in the UK. The route will not require a sponsor and has no restrictions around the type of work the graduate chooses to undertake. It is an open-minded and flexible policy, which can also be used as a pathway to a skilled work visa in the future.

We rate number one for international student satisfaction compared to our competitors

A game-changer

Once implemented, this new system will be game-changing. By improving our post-study-work offer, our employers can benefit from talented graduates from around the world, developing their business connections with other countries, languages and cultures. Many of these graduates will become the business leaders of the future, open to trading with the UK. All these graduates will boost our economy through income tax, national insurance and VAT contributions.

We will be back in line with our competitors, showing that the Britain of the future is global and open to talent, ideas and cultural contributions.

As our nation recrafts its place in the world, forging these lifelong links with international students is fundamental. Universities UK welcomed the new international education strategy (published by government in the spring), which set out a target to grow international student numbers to 600,000 annually, but ambitions need to be backed up with action. This particular action is a fantastic step in the right direction. 

We must continue to be ambitious, ensuring that this policy change is not only well-communicated to prospective students but that it is implemented effectively as part of wider immigration reform to support the international student experience.

The sector and the government should also take this opportunity to ensure the international graduates are sufficiently supported to good employment outcomes, whether in the UK or elsewhere, and that UK businesses are aware of how to employ international graduates and of the benefits of doing so.

This new route gives all of us in the sector and beyond a major opportunity to send a clear message to the brightest and best aspiring students across the world: the UK welcomes you. 

You might also like: Profile: Universities UK’s chief executive, Alistair Jarvis

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