The Home Secretary’s comments last week expressing concerns about the number of international students and their dependants coming to the UK have caused widespread alarm in the education sector.
But they should also be causing alarm in the UK Government.
Those of us who have worked in the sector for several years are concerned that these comments take us back to a different era when Theresa May was in government. This is a period of time that we left behind in March 2019, when the UK Government clearly stated its ambitions to grow international student numbers as part of its International Education Strategy.
This strategy was welcomed and supported across government, including in the Home Office, and changes have been implemented to the student and graduate routes to facilitate this – meaning that the target of 600,000 international students was exceeded ahead of schedule.
The evidence of the financial benefits of international students to the UK economy have been widely stated by colleagues across the UK higher education sector this week, so I won’t restate those here. Instead, let’s unpick the comments around the number of international students and their dependants.
Family members that need support
As the UK Government’s own Study UK campaign states, the UK offers “world-recognised universities”, “innovative teaching” and “an unforgettable student experience”. We also offer attractive and competitive post-study work opportunities, supported by employers of all sizes and sectors. The UK’s soft power in culture and education is world-leading. It’s not surprising that international students want to come here in such numbers. What is surprising is that this success would be deemed a problem for the UK.
Official statistics show that, while international students come to the UK to study at all levels, a significant proportion do so at master’s or PhD level. They are therefore graduates, often with some post-study work experience in their home country – not least because their UK education is going to cost them significant sums of money in tuition fees and living costs. Consequently, they are more likely to have family members that they need to support, or do not want to be parted from for a year or more.
The financial and social commitment an international student makes when coming to the UK is significant. International students do not have access to student support or tuition fee loans – they must fund their tuition and living costs themselves. As for putting pressure on resources, students and dependants pay £470 per year for access to the NHS, and many of them will have no health issues during their stay and not even use a GP. If all they get for their money is an annual Covid-19 vaccination, then the UK public sector is getting a fair deal.
I’m not sure what the basis for these comments is, but it is certainly not based on Home Office data. The Home Office defines clear restrictions for student dependants, and monitors these closely. Undergraduate students are not permitted to bring in dependants, so the number of dependants reflect the number of international students on postgraduate courses and their demographic – often married, with children or with other care responsibilities.
Why should they be denied their opportunity for a world-class education? An opportunity that they are fully funding, with no negative impact on UK public funds, and one which ensures that they (and their dependants) are contributing to their local economy while they are studying here.
As an education sector striving to provide international students in the UK with a world-leading experience, we must work together – using the Home Office’s own data – to ensure that the rhetoric on international students doesn’t go back a decade.