Major review of UK policy on international students seen as a “missed opportunity”

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A newly published government committee report recommends a modest easing of post-study work rights policy for international students
  • The committee also recommends that international students continue to be counted in net migration statistics

The British government should undertake a modest easing of its policies around post-study work rights for international students, but international students should not be removed from net migration statistics.

These are among the central recommendations of a highly anticipated government report that landed with something of a clunk this week. The report of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) – Impact of international students in the UK – was commissioned last year by then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and was seen by many international educators as a chance to improve the UK’s competitiveness in global education markets.

Reaction from peak bodies and educators in the UK, however, has been swift and, in the main, critical of the report’s analysis and recommendations. “While the report recognises the enormous contribution international students make to life in the UK, we are disappointed with its main recommendations,” said Universities UK President Janet Beer. “While the UK remains one of the most popular locations in the world for talented international students and staff, we have seen a slowdown in recent years compared to other countries. The UK could be doing much better than this.”

James Pitman of Destination for Education (an advocacy coalition led by Cambridge Education Group, INTO, Kaplan, Navitas, and StudyGroup) added, “We had hoped the committee would set out meaningful recommendations to help the UK recover market share. But maintaining the status quo will do nothing to restore Britain’s leadership in education exports. Our international competitors will continue to outperform us.”

And Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that, “This report is a missed opportunity for us to send a message to the rest of the world saying that the UK is open for business and welcomes international students.”

As these responses suggest, the report’s findings were so far removed from the educators’ expectations that some observers have suggested the committee was too much in the service of the British government in its review. Writing for Times Higher Education Nick Hillman noted, “It seems if you are a committee that is appointed by the Home Office, answerable to the Home Office and focused solely on labour market economics rather than education, you start and finish in a particular place.”

Key recommendations

Having established the economic value of the sector to the UK (£17.6 billion in 2015, or US$23 billion) and that “government and the sector should continue to work together to grow the number of international students” with no cap on student numbers, the report moves on to address the main areas of interest to British educators and stakeholders: the net migration target and post-study work rights.

On the first, Alan Manning, committee chair and London School of Economics professor of economics, takes the interesting position that the net migration target is a political mechanism and, as such, beyond the purview of the MAC.

“There are no grounds for removing students from the net migration statistics themselves, and to do so could compromise the quality of the statistics that are used for population estimates,” says the report. “However, the net migration target is a political target and the net migration figure does not have to form the basis of the government’s net migration target. The government could choose to use other data sources to set targets related to migration, such as visa or settlement statistics. Or it could choose not to have a target at all and summarise its ambitions on net migration in a different way.”

On the question of post-study work rights, the report observes, “The direction of travel in many competitor countries seems to be towards a more generous offer in post-study work…The UK moved in the other direction in 2012 though there has been some recent loosening, albeit modest.”

The committee’s recommendations in this respect could be fairly characterised as correspondingly modest. In short, the MAC recommends:

  • A widening of the window during which students may apply to transition from a Tier 4 (student) to a Tier 2 (work) visa so that students may apply for a Tier 2 at the point that they have a secure employment offer from a prospective employer.
  • The MAC argues as well that university graduates should be permitted a two-year window during which they may apply to switch to a Tier 2 visa, whether in the UK or not.
  • That leave to remain in the UK after graduation be extended to six months for all master’s graduates and 12 months for those completing PhD programmes.

The MAC stopped short of recommending a new visa class for post-study work, as had been recommended earlier this month by Universities UK – a proposal that had been widely endorsed within the sector and even by some senior government members.

On this point, the report concludes, “We do not recommend a separate post-study work visa, though our proposals on automatic leave to remain after course completion have some of the same effect. We know this is something that will disappoint the sector, but a longer period in-country would likely increase demand from international students but without ensuring that graduating students are in appropriately skilled work. The demand for student visas should stem from the value of the education being acquired and an opportunity to stay in a skilled job in the UK afterwards that includes a reasonable period to find work and to support oneself in that period. An extended post-study period of leave, with no conditions tied to it, risks adding to low-skilled migration and encouraging institutions to market themselves based on post-study work opportunities rather than the quality of the education they offer.”

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