Concerns raised at the APPG International Students

DK's been hearing from parliamentarians who want to make the case for international students, and the experts that advise them

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The speed and potentially the politicisation of the report on the Graduate visa route commissioned from the Migration Advisory Group has raised eyebrows across parliament.

The annual general meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on international students offered the opportunity for members and peers to get a sense of just how desperate the plight of providers is getting. Labour stalwart Paul Blomfield sat across from former ministers like Jo Johnson and David Willetts and representatives from every major Westminster party to hear from the affected sectors.

UUKI’s Harry Anderson characterised an “incredibly volatile international recruitment landscape” – though recent Home Office data shows a declining yet reasonably healthy position, beyond the timelapse things are looking bleak. Based on member surveys he suggested that January recruitment was down by more than 40 per cent year on year. “Challenging signals” from the UK government have combined with a high cost of living (and given rising visa fees and NHS surcharges, cost of studying) to make the UK less attractive at just the moment other nations (for example US recruitment is up 11.5 per cent overall and 35 per cent from the key Nigerian market) are moving into a post-pandemic rebound.

There was a sense in which everyone welcomed the idea of an examination of the graduate route – Anderson was clear that the timescales (noting, as Blomfield did, the “extraordinarily robust” response from the Chair Brian Bell) and the likely absence of data would not make for a report robust enough to use to drive policy.

There’s a tendency to see international recruitment as a matter only for the bigger and more established universities – a view that is at least five years out of date. IHE Chair James Pitman has been on the ground with agents in India, where the concerns are all about the potential for changes to the graduate route. Such a dent to international confidence is clearly an issue for universities, but smaller specialist providers are particularly exposed (indeed, IHE provide the secretariat to the APPG, and were kind enough to ask me along).

When the graduate route was closed last time, the sector lost 40 per cent of Indian recruitment in 12 months – with India playing a larger part in recruitment than ever before a similar fall could be catastrophic.

International students are not just an HE issue – the group heard from Emma Meredith from the Association of Colleges on the continued slow decline in FE recruitment. The big ask from FE is regulatory streamlining – currently one bad Ofsted review halts all international recruitment, even at levels of study that Ofsted has no oversight of. For international students Level 4 and Level 5 vocational qualifications (like the flagship Higher Technical Qualifications) need, like at Level 3, 15 hours a week of classroom study – no matter the actual pedagogic requirements of the course.

Rounding out the evidence, Huan Japes made the case for the value and economic impact of English language provision in rural and coastal locations while Simon Nathan from the Independent Schools council noted the value of independent schools in driving business relocation, before laying into Blomfield and Labour about VAT on college fees.

APPG members were very interested in the way that different providers experienced the current downturn, and how (in HE especially) geography and subject areas played in to this. There was also an appetite for benchmarking changes in recruitment with international recruitment, looking at the imposition of restrictions in Australia and Canada against the growing attractiveness of the US. Clearly, runs the argument, international students want to study somewhere – why not the UK?

It felt like the whole room supported the idea of a refresh or relaunch of the DfE International Education Strategy – though this time it would need buy-in from across government, as it currently felt like different departments are pulling in different directions. One example – several HE observers noted the increased time needed to process visa applications, and the increased refusal rate for often arbitrary or inconsequential reasons (now approaching 10 per cent of all student visa applications). It felt to many like the Sheffield wing of the Home Office has been under instructions to put the brakes on. In a few cases start dates for course have been postponed

If you’re of the opinion that universities could make do with less fee income, it was suggested that more than 30 universities have reported (as they are required to) a liquidity of less than 30 days to the Office for Students – and it is likely that more are hovering around the edges of that. If international recruitment pushes a provider into radical cost cutting measures that is to the clear detriment of home students and the local area. The existence of large and well regarded departments in subjects like engineering depends on international students – with a continued downturn in recruitment, we lose them.

Blomfield and the APPG members are out there making the case within all parties for international students – it must be lonely and difficult work. But we should be glad that at least an effort is being made. Something as existential to UK education as this issue needs a bit more noise.

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