The Immigration White Paper is announced

No limit on international student numbers, but a cap on ambition and growth?

Policy Connect’s Higher Education Commission welcomes the acknowledgement by the Government in the immigration White Paper of the need to attract international students and offer better post study work options. But the proposals are too timid and need to include our recommendation of a growth target for student numbers. 

On 18th December, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid presented the long awaited Immigration White Paper. The proposals represent a small step forward in delivering on the recommendations we called for in the Higher Education Commission’s report Staying Ahead: Are International Students Going Down Under.  But they do not deliver on a number of key recommendations that have the support of business, the HE sector and parliamentarians, and need to be significantly developed during the consultation if the UK is to put the “welcome” mat back down for prospective international students and remain a top destination. The HE Commission calls on the Government to:

  • Set a growth target for the number of international students, underpinned by cross-departmental strategy, to deliver the government’s revenue target of £30Bn by 2020 – a target which at present it will not meet 
  • Allow EU students to have access to home fee status beyond 2020
  • Ensure visa procedures are simplified for all students, rather than extending the current visa burden to students from the EU
  • Match post-study work options to be similar lengths to that of our competitor countries, for example Australia or Canada offer post-study work visas of between 18 months and 4 years.

The policy announced in the White Paper, that students from EEA countries will be treated like all other international students, coupled with the proposed work visa income threshold of £30,000, poses risks to future student recruitment from the continent – our nearest market. In addition to potentially impacting student recruitment, the equation of salary to skill level will deprive employers of a large pool of highly skilled workers at a time when Brexit is likely to exacerbate skills shortages.

Staying Ahead reported that the UK is already losing market share at a time when international student numbers are growing. International student fees provide proven benefits to the HE sector: they cross subsidise UK student’s fees and fund post-graduate research into cutting-edge science. Without their financial and intellectual contribution, some research facilities would close. This is particularly pertinent at a time when we consider how increased domestic participation in HE can be funded. International students also bring significant benefits to the exchequer and to local economies - their total value to the UK being £19.3 billion in 2015 - not to mention the soft power opportunities they provide.

At a time of political and economic uncertainty the Government should be doing all it can to show that the UK remains an attractive place to study, which is why we, along with others, have called on the government to set an ambitious target for international student growth. Our world-class HE sector is a national asset that we cannot afford to damage.

There were other indications of policy tensions within the Cabinet aside from immigration targets and the salary threshold. We were pleased that Sajid Javid, in response to Tim Loughton MP’s question on whether international students should be taken out of net migration figures, said “it is an area we continue to look at". Policy Connect urges him to consider the evidence presented in our report.

With the Home Secretary’s introduction to the White Paper promising that “discussions to develop the system will continue over the next twelve months”, we must strongly argue for creating an immigration system that enables the HE sector to retain its place as a global leader. Policy Connect and the Higher Education Commission will be convening a Parliamentary roundtable in the New Year to discuss responses to the White Paper.