The UK can be proud to have some of the best higher education establishments in the world and of its long term track record in welcoming foreign students. Many of these students have gone on to become leaders in the political, military, scientific, investment and business spheres around the world.
Such courtship of foreign students is of enormous benefit for both the UK and the relevant students’ country of origin. For the UK, it extends British influence around the world, bringing the country’s moral and common law values to an array of regions far and wide. In foreign students’ countries of origin, they welcome back future leaders with a global appetite.
It will be increasingly important, as the Brexit saga continues, for the UK to be able to negotiate fair trade deals outside of the European Union. As negotiations get under way, many of those on the opposite side of the table will either have been educated in the UK. Others, however, may have had their education disrupted due to the academic progression rules brought in during David Cameron’s leadership, which may affect how they view and treat the UK government in the course of such negotiations.
Back to basics
Introduced by Theresa May in April 2012 when she was Home Secretary, the academic progression rules prevent foreign students from pursuing multiple first degrees and postgraduate taught degrees. Despite a competitive global market, and the ambition of many modern students to qualify across multiple disciplines, the UK immigration rules restrict students from pursuing multiple degrees, unless they can show it is for a valid “academic progression”.
It is important to recognise that the norm in many cultures (Chinese and Indian for example) is to do more than one undergraduate degree. The problem with the current system is that it only allows student visas to study for one degree at each level.
There have been cases of foreign students wishing to pursue law degrees, for example, with the intention of returning to their own countries. In preparation for this, they are highly likely to want an English degree first. Not a bad idea as the law in the UK, the US and India (a landscape affecting nearly 2 billion people) is largely conducted in the English language. However, this is not seen as “academic progression” by the current government and, therefore, not possible under the current immigration rules.
The result is that foreign students (who pay extremely high fees to the UK) are increasingly looking elsewhere to study. Not only is the UK losing potential political and military allies but also a young talent pool of burgeoning scientists, doctors, and entrepreneurs who one day may well want to set up a business abroad and would probably be inclined to choose a country in which they have studied and which has welcomed them in the past. A question arises as to whether the UK can really afford to continue with such rules given the turmoil of Brexit, either in the long-term or the short-term. Can this country seriously afford to miss the opportunity of welcoming potential future world leaders and entrepreneurs, in a context in which it needs as many allies as possible and a central tenant of which (we are told) is the UK’s openness and attractiveness to the rest of the world? I think not.
The backstory of academic progression
Theresa May introduced these rules in a bid to “fudge” immigration figures when she was Home Secretary back in 2012. The government exerted increasing political pressure to lower immigration figures and it pounced on some of the easiest targets: foreign students. It is clear that these rules were brought in to ensure that foreign students would finish their tenure in the UK as quickly as possible and then leave, with their departure included in immigration statistics, seemingly showing a decline in net migration. The purpose was to dupe the public (and the right wing press) into believing that the powers that be were reducing net migration when, in fact, all it was doing was simply booting out some of the brightest minds, who would probably have left anyway to re-join and build their families and start their careers. The government argued that many students overstayed, when in truth the statistics illustrate that very few students actually overstayed in the UK. The position was grossly misrepresented and, in fact, a recent Migration Advisory Committee report recommends that student arrivals and departures be removed from immigration statistics.
Such misinformation was designed to convince the public that tens of thousands of students were overstaying their visas and that strict controls were needed to force them to leave. This is quite simply illogical. If the students were going to overstay, why not do so after three years rather than paying very high fees for an additional three years before overstaying? The whole thing was created to present an image of effective immigration policy and strategy, to fudge the immigration figures so we would believe the numbers of non-EU citizens leaving the country were higher every year. The result was to deprive universities of much-needed funding (foreign students pay much higher fees than UK or EU ones). This inevitably has meant a greater burden on UK students to fund their higher education and an increased number of graduates with long-term debt. A “no-win” situation for all.
Honesty is the best policy
Thankfully there is still time to turn on the funding tap for the sector and to start re-attracting more of the “best of the best”, to pursue a higher education in the UK. Let us not forget, some of these young students will be captains of foreign industries. Their loyalty and cooperation is essential to the UK’s economic revival (and even survival) if and when the UK leaves the EU. If the rules currently in force are left unreformed, there is a real risk that increasing numbers of future talent will continue to overlook the UK, in favour of countries like the US or Australia to the detriment of domestic students burdened with increasing levels of debt.
It is time for an overhaul of the UK immigration rules when it comes to students and to provide our much-loved and respected educational establishments with the funding they need and so rightly deserve, and to ensure that the UK’s future is economically and politically secure. With Theresa May’s imminent departure as Prime Minister, we can only hope that whomever replaces her takes the necessary amount of time to look at issues such as these (including especially student debt) in the national interest. Moreover, time is of the essence, as whoever it is needs to do so before the summer break or run the risk of failing to attract foreign students for the next academic year.
The urgent need for reform in this area is plain to see. The public can see it, students drowning in debt can see (and feel) it, foreign students wishing to come here can see it, as can employers increasingly short of resources and people who rely on exports to make a living. The only people who seem unable to see it are the government MPs and their colleagues, who continue to turn a blind eye to the deficiency of a rule they probably do not fully understand or even know exists. They may think it will help to win votes in the short-term, but they do so to the future detriment of an entire nation.