Will UK higher education still attract international students?

Foreign students have long been drawn to the UK’s hub of educational excellence, but – with the new post-Brexit immigration rules set out by Boris Johnson’s government – will this continue to be the case?

A source of great pride to the UK, the country’s educational establishments and universities have always welcomed students from around the world with open arms. This welcoming attitude has helped to extend the UK’s political, financial ,and business influence across the globe. Many of these students have gone on to lead successful businesses and financial institutions, and in some cases even countries and military organisations. However, the recent changes to immigration rules will have a resounding effect on the UK’s appeal to these future leaders. Is there a way that the UK can continue to market itself as an attractive study destination despite the perceived hostile environment?

Premiums and surcharges

As we know, fees for international students at all levels are much more expensive than what British citizens are asked to pay. This financial burden has now been exacerbated by an increase in demands from the Home Office before they even reach our shores. As example of this, the Immigration Health Surcharge (paid to allow access to NHS services) has now doubled to £400. Surely, as a country looking to attract “the best talent” we should be attracting and harnessing it from a young age? At a time when universities are struggling for funding, would it not make much more sense to be making the immigration journey to higher education simpler for this “best talent” who pay exorbitant fees?

But it is not only the increase in financial demands that may discourage foreign nationals from studying in the UK, but also the rules regarding length of stay post-study. At degree level or above, an international student from the age of 18 can currently remain in the UK as a Tier 4 (General) student for up to five years. There is an exemption when studying a specific master’s degree after their undergraduate course, but this is limited to courses relevant to their undergraduate degree. Students that then opt to stay in the UK to study a PhD may be able to remain in the UK for up to eight years.

This is more restrictive than it sounds. Many students would rather study a second undergraduate degree or other course than a ‘relevant’ masters. This is perfectly normal for many – perhaps they wish to study English language followed by medicine, or physics followed by business studies. But home office visa rules make this near on impossible.

Limited leeway

Theresa May’s government introduced rules around academic progression which only permit two undergraduate degrees in specific circumstances. The rules around this are complicated, and in some cases confusing. Biology followed by physics – for example – is not seen as academic progression, neither is chemistry followed by physics. How can we attract the brightest with arbitrary rules like these?

The UK’s immigration policies are fast changing. Students are only able to follow their UK employment dreams if they switch to a different visa category and re-start their 5-year period of residing in the UK again, or remain in the UK for 10 years continuously. Even then, the requirements of meeting the settlement rules are restrictive. There are a high number of talented students with much-needed skills. The UK has recently suffered a shortage specifically within the STEM fields. Instead of specific requirements at such a high level, as is required for the exceptional talent visa, soon to be the new “Global Talent” visa, could there not be a post study integrated visa for STEM graduates for example which leads to an expedited route to settlement?

October 2019 saw the Government, thankfully, expand the shortage occupation list – but certain sectors are still omitted. The UK is experiencing real shortage within the tech and science fields – and there here are a lot of international students who study these courses – surely we need to capitalise on this and hold on to this needed talent to fill the shortages. The new post-study work visa, that allows students to remain and work in the UK for two years post study, is a welcome initiative.

Global talent and points

On 20 February 2020, The Home Office introduced the Global Talent visa. The requirements look fairly similar to the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, with only a slight difference to the mechanics of the visa route, such as a faster route to settlement and lifting the cap of the number of endorsements that can be issued. Will the government take into consideration an opportunity to show international students that, once they have studied in the UK, they are welcome to work here and that the UK is keen to hone in on the skills they can provide within the workforce? This will not only help the international student market, the students themselves, but help to dispel the notion that the UK is harbouring a “hostile environment”. It will also help the UK economy.

Under the current system, international students are welcome to stay for up to four months to secure a sponsored employed position. This is no easy task in such a short period. Hopefully, increasing this period to two years will help. But there are a raft of improvements that still need to be made to the immigration system if we want to continue to attract the international student market.

While the Government has announced a new Australian-style points based system effective from January 2021, we hope that we will see far more action to help universities and further education establishments attract foreign students, who can then contribute to the UK economy. It seems preposterous to be turning down this talent.

One response to “Will UK higher education still attract international students?

  1. “On 20 February 2020, The Home Office introduced the Global Talent visa. The requirements look fairly similar to the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, with only a slight difference to the mechanics of the visa route, such as a faster route to settlement and lifting the cap of the number of endorsements that can be issued.”

    The Global Talent Visa is a much more significant change than it looks. It’s a big expansion of eligibility, not a minor change. This article explains why:
    https://wonkhe.com/blogs/why-the-latest-visa-reforms-are-a-step-in-the-right-direction/

    See also full details on the UKRI website:
    https://www.ukri.org/research/international/global-talent-visa/

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