Immigration is on the political agenda this year; whether it’s the tragic crisis in the Mediterranean or the Government’s ongoing efforts to meet its net migration target. At Hobsons, we talk to tens of thousands of would-be migrants every year – we ask those still enquiring and applying to study for their views. And what they are telling us about the UK should worry Government and HE institutions alike. Because this country’s policies are putting students off.
‘So what?’ you might ask. After all, Government targets to reduce the inward flow of people to the UK and from our work it looks like they might be succeeding. But to welcome a fall in the numbers of international students looking to the UK as the place they want to be would be misguided and irresponsible. International students contribute in excess of £7 billion a year; Universities UK, the body that represents our HE sector, claims that numerous degree courses are sustainable only because of the funding that comes from overseas-students; and immigration think tank British Future has found that a majority of the public actively do not want Government to reduce the flow of international students. So we have a group of migrants who contribute economically, are vital to a key UK export sector and who the public are not worried about. Losing ground in this market is akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.
And losing ground we are. The truth is that Britain is falling behind our European rivals. The traditional advantages that the UK has enjoyed – from the English language to our wealth of prestigious institutions to well-established historic and familial connections – are starting to lose their power as the market for international students becomes more competitive. And countries that once lagged behind the UK are starting to catch-up as they make a concerted effort to attract students from the world over.
Take Germany. Over the last year, foreign-born enrolment in German universities has increased by an impressive 7%, compared to just 3% here in the UK. Our survey shows almost 10% year-on-year growth in prospective international students expressing an interest in studying in Germany. The survey also shows that of those students who enquired about the UK but then decided not to come here more than 10% chose Germany instead.
‘Whilst the UK has recently abolished post-study work visas – which allowed graduates to stay and gain work experience – Germany has introduced automatic 18-month visas’
Why are students globally increasingly choosing Germany over the UK? The answer lies, at least in part, in the mood-music both countries play on the question of immigration. Whilst the UK has recently abolished post-study work visas – which allowed graduates to stay and gain work experience – Germany has introduced automatic 18-month visas. Whilst the UK includes students in the annual immigration target, creating downward pressure on international student numbers, Germany has an official target to attract around 350,000 a year. As international students become more and ore savvy about the need for work experience and ‘employability’ skills to augment their degree and make the most of overseas study, these factors become increasingly important. 90% of the prospective students in our survey told us that employability was important to determining where they would study and 70% are opting to study abroad primarily to enhance their career prospects. In that context it is little wonder that many would-be students are deciding that the UK – with our restrictive visa rules and low annual immigration targets – isn’t the best destination for them.
What can be done? Well, primarily this is a question for Government and for policy-makers. At Hobsons we help our partners to recruit from the world over. And institutions can do much to overcome the negative impressions of Britain that some target communities are starting to develop. Emphasising employability programmes, links to industry and the possibility of work-experience through study can all help universities push back against the tide. So too can expert targeting of potential students and good intelligence – both areas where we excel. But alongside the individual efforts of ambitious and forward-thinking higher education providers we need Government to take this issue seriously. If action is not taken to improve the option available to international students looking to come to the UK, contribute to our economy and study in our world-beating institutions then real and long-lasting damage will be done to this Great British export market. It’s time to think again about post-study work options and about the inclusion of students in the immigration cap.
So let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. In the global race, Higher Education is a rare British success story. It makes us money, it subsidises expertise that might otherwise be lost and it enjoys widespread public support. That’s a win-win in policy terms – it’s time to grow up and start backing our universities as they set out to recruit the best and the brightest to come and study here.