A crackdown is coming on international students

Just before we broke up for Christmas, new Education Committee Chair Robin Walker used his first meeting between the select committee chairs and the Prime Minister to grill Rishi Sunak on international students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Noting that when he was at the Department for Education (DfE) there had been a little celebration when the sector hit its 600k a year target, Walker asked the PM whether he thought that figure was about right, too few or too many.

Sunak said most of the right things – noting the “significant economic and cultural contribution” of international students both to the sector “and indeed the UK”.

But although he denied that the “only let elite universities recruit them” thing had been discussed, it was interesting that he also felt the need to remind the committee that the target of 600,000 was for 2030 and was therefore “met several years early”.

He also used a curious turn of phrase as follows:

We just want to make sure that people, when they are here, are contributing one way or another. I think that that is an important foundation of a proper migration system.

The following day, Home Secretary Suella Braverman popped up in front of the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee and was also keen to point out how early the sector had met the 600k target, adding:

We welcome people who want to come here and work and contribute to our economy via higher education, we equally have to consider the impact that growing numbers of people coming to the UK have on our on our resources, our accommodation, our health service, or other public services, that always requires a delicate assessment of, of competing factors.

The key problem, remember, is that according to YouGov in early December, one in six 2019 Tory voters claim they would vote for Reform next time – and Matthew Goodwin-backed People Polling had Reform on almost half of the Tories’ vote share a few days later.

So with the international students crackdown door left ajar, it was interesting yesterday to see the Times’ Home Affairs Editor Matt Dathan reveal the contents of the plan that most of the sector was bracing for back in mid-October, only for it to be shelved amid a blazing row with Liz Truss that saw Braverman exit the Home Office for 5 minutes.

We already pretty much knew that limiting the number of dependants that international students can bring into the country remained on the table, and it won’t take many cases of January arrivals failing to find family accommodation to turn that suggestion into a firm proposal given Braverman’s comments. What we didn’t know was how that might be done – in the piece Dathan suggests that the plan was to raise the income threshold for each additional family member.

The baffling thing about that threshold is that it’s been frozen at £680 per dependant per month (£845 in London) since at least 2017, with the income requirement for the student only having risen by £8 (not a typo) over that time (up by £69 for London) – both figures were therefore due a significant rise anyway given that plenty of providers claim the figures as signals of being able to live comfortably on that figure as a student for 9 months.

Whether raising the thresholds actually puts any students off (as opposed to plunging them into more dodgy debt) remains to be seen.

Perhaps more dramatically, Dathan also suggests that numbers are to be reduced by restricting access to the graduate route such that only those with in-demand skills would qualify – “likely to include civil engineers and scientists”.

That sounds severe given the huge percentage of growth believed to be thanks to the Graduate Route offer, and given that much of the expansion has been made up of places on business studies and health courses – although there’s nothing in the piece on the widely understood practice of switching to skilled visa routes that universities are busy changing their tuition fee policies over.

It remains true, of course, that it is international student income that is making up for the freeze in home domiciled tuition fees. The problem is that the extent to which that is happening has never really been debated, nor its implications discussed, by government – at least not in terms of the numbers we’re seeing now (plus their pretty much unexpected dependants).

The sector and its departmental sponsor might well assume that given the way immigration is thought about in this country, the only way you can increase international student numbers sufficiently is via implications stealth and figures lag – but that surely is a plan whose luck runs out eventually, especially if growth becomes as rapid as it looks this year.

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