172,000 fewer international students?

Making a big splash across the media this morning is a new plan to cut UK immigration, which if enacted would have major impacts on higher education and students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The three key proposals involve extending the closure of the student dependent route, closing the graduate route to students and reserving the student visa route for the “brightest” international students.

The first involves extending the closure of the student dependent route to students enrolled on one-year research Master’s degrees.

The group doesn’t detail how many students this would impact, noting merely that the total when added to the existing dependant proposal would be around 150k students a year – and when combined with an assumed 63 per cent eventually staying, bring down net migration to 76,500.

(That 0.63 multiplier is calculated by dividing the ONS number for Long Term International Migration by the number of visas issued, separated according to category of visa. As I note here, ONS is working on more sophisticated ways of working that out – but isn’t ready yet.)

There is not a compelling case to permit a year-long Master’s student to bring dependants with them into the UK given that the course is for a mere 12 months, inclusive of breaks for Christmas and Easter holidays. If a Master’s student did have a family, the academic calendar would still allow for that student to travel home.

Setting aside some of the dodgy assumptions in the numbers, the group may or may not have clocked that there is a suspicion that some existing provision will pivot in this direction to get round the new rules.

The second proposal is just to close the graduate work route altogether. To justify that proposal, it quotes a 2018 Migration Advisory Committee report that found that:

…the earnings of some graduates who remain in the UK seem surprisingly low and it is likely that those who would benefit from a longer period to find a graduate level job are not the most highly skilled. “If, after two years, an international student with a PhD has not secured a job, that graduate is unlikely to be a major asset to the UK work force.

The maths this time takes 72,893 (graduate visas granted), multiplies them by that 0.65 ONS student multiplier and gets to 47,380 for that big net (or at least long term) migration number reduction.

Finally there’s the old “brightest and best” thing. This time, quoting Suella Braverman, the group argues that:

…our immigration policy should not be used to prop up the finances of underperforming universities. As the Home Secretary has previously observed, allowing international students to bring in “family members who can piggyback on to their student visa” aids “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions.” More needs to be done to ensure universities are fit for purpose and that international students receive an education that warrants the high prices they are charged.

Notwithstanding the lazy conflation between between the “brightest and best” students and the Russell Group, we also get a lazy conflation between the “poorest performing” universities and every university that isn’t in the self-selecting Russell Group. It simply takes non RG universities, and divides them into a quarter to get “poorest performing”.

So this time the maths shakes out as:

  • Visas for poorest performing universities 484,358 (total CAS applications)*0.62 (percent of non Russell Group) = 300,302
  • 300,302*0.25 (“poorest performing” quartile)=75,076
  • 75,076*0.65(ONS student multiplier) = 48,799 reduction in net migration

The “New Conservatives” is a fancy name for a group of MPs largely clustered around the fabled “Red Wall”, consisting of Gareth Bacon, Duncan Baker, Jack Brereton, Paul Bristow, Miriam Cates, Brendan Clarke-Smith, James Daly, Anna Firth, Nick Fletcher, Chris Green, James Grundy, Jonathan Gullis, Eddie Hughes, Tom Hunt, Mark Jenkinson, Danny Kruger, Andrew Lewer, Marco Longhi, Robin Millar and Lia Nici.

As such, in the slipstream of the Brexit vote, they remind us that in 2019, the Conservatives won its biggest majority in 30 years – partly on a promise that there would be:

…fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down.

The bind for Rishi Sunak is that to the extent to which he has “politics”, it appears to be about combining economic dynamism with social conservatism.

The problem with international students therefore is that on the one hand they represent a buccaneering export/educational tourism industry that also allows a degree of restraint in higher education spending, which when combined with tweaks to fee repayment allows him to still fund burgeoning HE demand.

But on the other hand, this frames international students as contributors to a net migration problem that socially conservative voters don’t like when they’ve elected MPs to deliver on the Brexit promise of getting control of borders.

With the Conservatives flatlining in the polls, it’s not at all clear that Sunak’s current line will hold – especially since numbers continue to grow and we’re due a few quarters yet of the (often confusing) numbers growing.

If nothing else we ought to excerpt a bulge on that dependant number ahead of the shutters coming down, and all sorts of housing chaos peppering freshers’ coverage along the way. International students might not be “taking the places of home students” but in many cities they almost certainly are taking bed spaces when soaring interest rates are slowing down construction.

Whether all of that will cause further changes ahead of an election is anyone’s guess – and whether Labour will reverse any of the current or potential further changes also depends on their ability to balance (or at least obfuscate on) a series of competing focus group conclusions.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, said:

International students make an invaluable contribution to our universities and communities… It would be an act of extraordinary self-harm to undermine our competitiveness by enacting some of the policies suggested in this report.

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