The home secretary is wrong to target international student immigration

For James Pitman, the Home Secretary's rhetoric on international students and their dependents is both dangerous and wrong

James Pitman is Managing Director of Development for UK and Europe at Study Group

The new home secretary has suggested that the government should reconsider its approach to welcoming international students.

Framed as fulfilling the government’s Brexit pledge to lower total immigration to the tens of thousands, Suella Braverman said at conference last week that the country should take “a more discerning, smart approach to the number of student visas” issued.

For advocates of international education, this feels like déjà vu. Similar immigration-related issues were raised during Theresa May’s time in the role, and later as prime minister.

These objections were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.

Immigration is red meat to some amongst the Tory faithful, and it’s worth noting that the home secretary’s comments were delivered to a fringe event, not to her fellow members of parliament. In the event, leaks of her position also went further than her conference speech itself.

It’s entirely possible that those in power are using international students as a distraction from other, more complex immigration issues such as channel migration. Whatever the reason, it is our responsibility – as members of the international education community – to challenge the falsehoods associated with this argument.

The Home Office – are they in or out?

For years, the international higher education community has argued that the Home Office should be a part of the International Education Strategy (IES) alongside the Department for International Trade (DIT) and Department for Education (DfE). This makes sense, as the Home Office plays a role in strategy and execution on matters like student visas.

Despite this, the Home Office has maintained that participation in the IES runs counter to its job and refused to actively participate. This week has revealed that this is disingenuous: the Secretary is objectively choosing to involve herself in the international study process.

The right way to participate is to join up with the DIT and DfE to ensure support, validation, and inclusion as part of the IES rather than giving international students the Brexit treatment. Without a united front, the progress and benefits of recent years could be put at risk.

Here today, gone tomorrow

In discussions about net migration targets, Braverman – like May before her – overlooks that international students are, in the vast majority of cases, temporary immigrants. The Oxford Migration Observatory finds that at least 98 per cent of non-EU international students leave the country before their visa expires.

International students study here, pay fees and participate in our communities, and then return to their home countries for work. Every bit of polling reflects that the public, even those especially concerned about immigration, appreciate this fact.

As the politicians say, let us be clear. Students are not a drain on our national resources. They pay the NHS surcharge, despite generally being younger and putting little pressure on the health system, as well as VAT. They assist in the much-vaunted push for economic growth.

Some international students, almost exclusively postgraduates, are permitted to bring family members to the UK while they study. However, these families remain net contributors to local communities and leave once the period of the study visa ends. International postgraduate students are also essential to keeping important but lower-demand courses open for domestic students in key areas like engineering.

International education is an export business

International education is an export business as well as an individual and social good. Financially, international students follow the same model as tourists – they come to the UK, pursue their education and a limited period of employment, spend money, and leave. The few exceptions to this are individuals with shortage skills like doctors or dentists. Nobody is suggesting that we should cut down on tourism, yet the longer duration of an international student’s stay means that they spend far more than any tourist.

International education is extremely competitive. If we don’t proactively welcome international students and support them effectively while they study, we will lose the market share we have worked hard to maintain. Data from Oxford Migration Observatory shows that, although international student totals have increased in the UK, we’ve fallen behind competitors like the US proportionally.

Australia, meanwhile, has just reopened after years of border closures and is working hard to re-establish itself as an international study destination. It is eyeing positive policies just as we send negative messages from the Conservative party conference. Education is a global marketplace, and it would be madness to jeopardise our lead by creating arbitrary barriers to growth.

The true detriment

Ultimately, international students bring more to the UK than they supposedly take. The education sector is united on this and will not back down: we must build upon our hard-earned successes in international education, not desert them. We’ve hit ambitious targets well in advance of deadlines and deftly navigated the challenges associated with Covid-19.

I’ve been heartened by the united response to Braverman’s comments. The condemnation has been louder than when Theresa May made similar moves and it has brought together the entire international education community.

International education absolutely fits within this prime minister’s focus on growth and the continuation of the levelling up agenda – and positioning it any other way is misleading at best and dangerous at worst.

Update: This article was amended for clarity after publication.

7 responses to “The home secretary is wrong to target international student immigration

  1. The reality is that many university forms and cities just can’t cope with the huge increases in international students bringing family members. There just isn’t the housing stock for so many families and the result is that many students have a miserable time trying to find somewhere suitable. The lack of supply means students have to either pay much more than they can afford, or move into sub-standard, unsafe accommodation. I have no issue with universities recruiting more international students with families but we do have to be realistic about the impact this is having on the rental market, in many areas

    1. I agree with you on the issue around housing and the challenges it poses to everyone including the international students.However this is an issue that any government in power should be addressing along with the industry, and it’s not one that has suddenly appeared from nowhwere. Consistenly governments and industry have failed to make long term strategic decisions around housing. International students should not be bearing the brunt or the negative focus of governments’ failure to “level up” the country.

    2. Around my university many houses in the Universities expansion plan areas have been bought up at great cost to the University, which they then rent out to mature married students from non-european countries, who often bring several wives and many children with them, some semi-detached 3 beds being knocked through to become 6 bed detached houses such is the space some need, before ultimately being demolished to expand the campus. The additional load on the local NHS and other services are a hidden factor in this, along with elderly parents who visit and end up being health tourists. Our NHS is now pretty much seen by many as the Worlds NHS, to the detriment of the UK’s population.

      1. This is racist fantasy. How ridiculous to come on to a public platform and spew out this jibber jabber.

  2. I agree with all the earlier comments. The infrastructure just isn’t there to support so many international students with dependants and I feel my institution pays zero attention to the impact on the NHS, schools, housing as a result of the huge expansion in international student numbers. My university has over 25% of overseas students bringing children and 40% in rota bringing my a partner. You can point the finger at the government but institutions themselves take an equal share of the blame. The students are often told a fairy tale by the overseas agents about what life in the U.K. will be like and these students face a huge shock when they arrive and have to immediately stay in an expensive Airbnb or a hotel for numerous nights only to find an expensive house miles and miles away from campus, as it’s the only place available. It’s hard enough for U.K. citizens to rent property these days due to the shortage of properties available and the yearly increase of international family, many of whom plan to stay after their studies come to an end, are making a bad situation even worse.

  3. Fact is that higher Education in the UK can’t run without international student funding, especially with the freeze of domestic fees.

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