Here’s how the government should welcome the next generation of global talent

Constant chopping and changing is in no-one’s interest. Anne Marie Graham sets out what a sustainable international student policy could look like

Anne Marie Graham is Chief Executive of UKCISA.

International students in UK education have been in the headlines for various reasons in 2024. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that international student migration is an issue to be dealt with. The facts tell a different story.

International students are not treated favourably over domestic students. Instead, they experience additional hurdles to study in the UK. With no access to public funds or to tuition fee loans, they finance their own education with expensive loans or with years of family savings.

Unable to find accommodation easily from overseas, they have to fund high-cost short-term accommodation, or at worst be vulnerable to exploitation. They are subject to arcane rules on academic progression that require them to travel (at a high cost) to their home country to apply for a new visa. They face different rules depending on level of study or the track record of their provider.

The recent policy removing the right to bring dependants on postgraduate taught courses discriminates against women and disabled students. Compounded with the inability to bring dependants in on the Graduate route and rising visa fees and immigration health surcharge costs, it is nearly impossible for anyone with a family or care responsibilities to decide to study here, and even more so to stay for up to 3 years while they build their work experience as a graduate.

A sustainable international student policy

International students are key to the sustainability of higher education. International students internationalise the experience for all and ensure the financial sustainability of courses for domestic students. It’s essential that this contribution is recognised by policymakers as well as those of us who work with these students.

This week, UKCISA is launching a set of recommendations for a sustainable international student policy that will support the whole UK education sector to deliver on its objectives to welcome the next generation of global talent.

With our members, we’ve identified where current policy presents issues for international students and their sponsoring institution. We’ve highlighted where international students are held to a different standard to their domestic peers, and where inequity exists within the sector.

Given the disconnect between the narrative and the facts, our recommendations lead by reiterating the importance of promoting the UK as a welcoming and inclusive country to study in, using positive language in cross-government policy and campaigns, which acknowledges the strength and contributions of international students.

Much is made of the impact of negative press stories on prospective students, but we also see the impact on current students who are working hard to complete their studies, or graduates who stayed in the UK to gain work experience before returning home. Despite the welcoming support from their institutions, these students wake up to news stories about “cracking down” and “abuse”. UKCISA and our members are committed to supporting the international student experience through the #WeAreInternational student charter, and our student ambassadors and the charter are able to tell a compelling story about their authentic experience in the UK.

Evidence for all

This negative narrative also leads to the development of policy based on rhetoric, not evidence.

The lack of robust data on international students and their dependants means policy is developed on the basis of a headline net migration target, without nuance and contextual understanding. Our counterparts in Australia and Canada gather such data, but the UK is reliant on non-centralised (albeit excellent) data from a range of sector and third party organisations. That’s why we are calling for the government to ensure that it has the central data collection mechanisms to build a comprehensive evidence base of migration data for international students and their dependants to inform meaningful policy development.

The key to sustainability for the students and our sector is to develop fair and equitable immigration policies for international students across the UK education sector. Students need to be clear about the fees they are expected to pay throughout their programme, and not be subject to sudden fee increases. They should be able to study alongside their domestic peers where academic content is delivered on a hybrid basis, with no impact on their immigration status.

Student sponsors need to be empowered to make informed decisions about students’ circumstances, enabling them to manage unforeseen circumstances for an individual and minimising unnecessary international travel which contributes to the carbon emissions we should be looking to reduce. There needs to be a system which facilitates moving from different visa routes and enables applications from overseas, recognising the circumstances of individual students.

To achieve this immigration system, the UK needs the right technology. Our recommendations call for a digital transformation that enhances the customer experience for international students and education sponsors. Our immigration system needs digital tools that protect its users by minimising errors, supporting academic progression, embedding improvements and updates working hand-in-hand with sponsors and student representatives.

The right outcome

Lastly, for most students – international and domestic – education is essential to support their career goals. Our final recommendation outlines the critical importance of investing in resources and committing to tools that support careers and employability opportunities for international students and graduates, acknowledging the importance of a flexible post-study work offer for a high-quality student experience, and the need to understand international graduate outcomes to shape the offer for future cohorts.

There is no doubt that UK policymakers are still committed to welcoming international students to a UK education, even if the language used suggests otherwise.

UKCISA’s recommendations outline how to make this a reality, with a deep cross-government commitment to including a sustainable international student experience as an objective in any future International Education Strategy – and using the #WeAreInternational student charter as a framework to evaluate its progress.

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