Keeping our capital working for the UK

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Time for international students to stand up and not be counted

Mark Hilton, Skills and Employment Director, London First

The fight to keep Britain front and centre of the global stage intensifies as we race towards Brexit. Investing in our international student market will be a wise move if we’re to forge strong trading partnerships and continue to attract a world-class workforce.

UK higher education is already one of our leading export sectors; generating £11bn a year[i]. So, what makes this sector so valuable, when it comes to keeping us on the world stage?

First, soft power; the ability to drive change by mobilising global relationships. In 2015, ComRes ranked the UK number one in global soft power and our international students are core to this[1]

Whilst studying here, many have ambitions to work for a time, they build networks, add cultural richness, and return home with strong fondness and connections with the UK. These international students often become the greatest ambassadors for the UK, creating the conditions for successful future trading relationships. One in ten current world leaders are UK alumni.[2]

Second, skills. International students bring skills and experience that we simply cannot grow from the local labour market.  For example, our world leading professional services firms value the language skills, local knowledge and connections that global talent brings to international projects.

Third, the industrial strategy. Government is keen to position this as a global strategy, delivering a regionally balanced economy. International students doubtlessly help to drive local entrepreneurship.  Universities can endorse international graduates with credible and genuine business ideas and support them to take these to fruition.

They also generate jobs for local residents.  Universities UK’s analysis states that “in 2014–15, spending by international students supported 206,600 jobs in university towns and cities across the UK”.  Our own research shows that in London alone, international students support 70,000 jobs.

And if those aren’t convincing enough arguments, there’s always the income factor. It’s not an understatement to say that international students’ fees – some £4.8bn in 2014/15 according to Universities UK – help to ensure the very viability of our world class universities, and maintain the courses that thousands of British students take.

But our status as a world leading magnet for international students is not guaranteed. Canada, for example, saw enrolments surge by 22% in 2016, with India the biggest single growth rate at 57% [Professionals in International Education News, 2017]. By contrast, Indian student numbers in the UK have dropped by over 75%[3] in the last few years. Cities that historically have fared less well in attracting international students, like Seoul, are also fast improving.

Further, constantly changing rules has brought a level of complexity to the international student market building a real barrier to entry.

So, now is the time to invest in and protect and grow this great British success story. It is time for a phase two to the Government’s reform agenda (link to 3 point plan). We must do everything we can to build the strong foundations required for post-Brexit Britain to succeed and grow in the years ahead.  Let international students play their part.

Phase one rightly focused on the need to clamp down on any bogus activity across the international student market. The success of these measures, taken together with the government’s own exit check data which shows that over 97% of international students play by the rules[4], means there is now the opportunity to move the debate on.

Of course, we need to continue to police the flow of students in and out of the country and education and business will stand alongside government to do this.

Yet, action should be taken that will boost the number of genuine international students who come to study and then work in the UK. Three steps are required to secure this prize.

First, more accurate net migration data which reports figures for students, workers and family.

We need to recognise that students are temporary visitors and not migrants. The Government has been clear that there is no cap on the number of genuine students who can come to study in the UK.  Yet, including students in the net migration target with its policy ambition to reduce migration to the UK, sends the opposite message.

We could be smarter about how we present the UK’s official net migration figures. Rather than publishing an aggregate net migration figure each quarter based on flawed International Passenger Survey data, let’s use better sources of data including exit check information and records from the Higher Education institutions themselves, and present separate figures for each group of people coming and going from the UK, so students, workers and family.

Then, like many of our competitors (USA, Canada, Australia) let’s be clear when we publish this data, that we are not cracking down on student numbers.

The value in removing them from an aggregate and blunt target figure that aims to cut migration is clear: it would send a strong message that the UK is serious about its ambition to invest in international education. And let’s not forget, poll after poll shows the British public do not see students as migrants in the first place. Take the 2016 ComRes survey for London First, which revealed only 17% of Londoners consider international students as migrants.

Second, reinstate two-year post study work visas.

We should go one step further and make it easier for students to use their skills and work in the UK after they complete their studies. British educated overseas talent is an asset and not a liability. We should reinstate the two-year post study work visa. This would make our country more competitive as we seek to make the best of Brexit: it would be good for UK universities, good for UK business and good for Britain’s long-term relations with the global business community when these graduates return to their home countries.

Third, show the UK is a great place to learn.

Government, business and education should join forces on a campaign to promote our country as the world’s premier destination for international students. This should be a focal part of the government’s ‘Great’ campaign.

Being open to genuine international students would be popular with the EU27 and with our future trading partners beyond.

Building a strong global outlook post-Brexit is crucial for the UK, keeping us open to new business, ensuring our workforce remains strong and diverse and reflecting our global relationships.

It’s time for the UK government to acknowledge our world class international students are not the target.

[1] http://www.comresglobal.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Report_Final-published.pdf

[2] https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/ihe/news/uk-education-leading-world

[3] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/articles/internationalstudentmigrationresearchupdate/august2017

[4] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/articles/whatshappeningwithinternationalstudentmigration/2017-08-24

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