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New UK report calls for cohesive government policy to grow international education sector

Currently in the UK, two facts co-exist… uncomfortably. On the one hand is widespread public anxiety about immigration, fuelled in part by past governmental policies that led to some abuse of the system. On the other is the British economy’s need for talented international students who contribute revenues while studying, help in forging vital international cultural and trade links, and sometimes stay on afterward to pursue their careers and contribute their skills and knowledge to the British economy.

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Britain Wants You!, addresses this concurrence, arguing that current governmental policy is preventing a situation where immigration goals and international education goals might exist in a more complementary fashion.

ICEF Monitor covers the topline recommendations of the report, giving an overview of pressing issues facing all those with a stake in UK education.

Mismatch between immigration and education

The main complaint of the IPPR report is that UK governmental policies are not cohesive when it comes to immigration and international education.

The way it stands now, the overarching governmental goal is reducing net migration – and because international students are considered migrants after 12 months of studying in the country they cannot help but suffer ill effects of the pursuit of this goal. But the government – at least at one level – realises the damage this is doing because it has the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) promoting the growth of international education. The BIS considers a 15-20% growth in international student numbers over the next five years to be “realistic.”

The IPPR report argues that:

“It is not possible to bring down net migration and simultaneously grow the international education sector.”

And it says:

“The government needs to commit unequivocally to increasing the number of international students studying at British education institutions.”

The urgency of the issue is underlined in a BIS statistic: in 2011, over 75% of education export earnings came from students studying in the UK.

Recommendations for international education in the UK

The report’s authors acknowledge that in the past, there has been “sustained abuse” of the student visa system; they are not saying that all international students should be welcome. What they are arguing for is an overall “open and flexible” student visa regime that contains enough provisions to clamp down on abuse.

Mostly, the report’s recommendations encourage an environment where the importance of international education to the UK economy is reflected in governmental policy and across the sector. This would include:

  • A welcoming environment for international students with attractive work and immigration offers for them (as there increasingly are in so many other competitive study abroad destinations);
  • Education providers fully complying with rules and regulations and helping their students to integrate into and contribute to local communities;
  • Government not instituting “unsettling” and destabilising visa regime changes;
  • Greater respect for non-university sectors such as further education and English language schools, “both in their own right and as crucial feeders into higher education”;
  • The Home Office and the education sector working together to achieve a balance between clamping down on visa abuse and permitting the “freedom and flexibility to flourish in the global market.”

As for specific recommendations, most fundamentally, the report urges the government to abandon its net migration targets. In addition, it calls for:

  • An investment in collecting better longitudinal data on students’ pathways through the immigration system;
  • Narrower and more targeted screening of prospective international students, and greater support for education institutions that are licensed to sponsor them;
  • A modest levy on international students for NHS (health) coverage so long as the cost of this is offset by other advantages (such as work rights);
  • Independent review of the burgeoning student visitor visa route to monitor unusual patterns.

What is at stake

The report’s authors cite several trends that underline the problems with the current governmental approach to international students and the importance of the report’s recommendations. It says:

  • Data now indicates that international student entrants to higher education for the 2012/13 academic year were broadly flat, reversing a trend of growth.
  • The number of visas issued to foreign students to attend courses in the further education sector fell by 46% in the year to December 2012, and the income that further education colleges received from Tier 4 students’ tuition fees is estimated to have decreased by £11 million between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
  • In 2011, 40% of all international students in higher education came into university through pathway programmes with other providers.
  • The UK’s post-study work offer is weaker than many of its major competitor countries, such as Canada or New Zealand.

See our previous coverage on the effect of tightened UK visa regulations as well.

The UK government’s dilemma

As much as the report argues that the government’s approach to international education is dangerous to the goals it purports to want for the sector, it also recognises the tough political environment in which the government finds itself.

An August 2013 the Economist/Ipsos MORI Issues Index found that “race relations/immigration” came second only to the economy (a longstanding front running issue) as a priority issue for the British public. Nearly 4 in 10 (38%) respondents mentioned race relations/immigration, an increase of 4 percentage points since the previous year’s Issues Index, and “the highest level of concern about ‘race relations/immigration’ since May 2010, the month in which the Coalition government came to power.”

The government has reacted to the public’s concern in large sweeping measures such as the net migration goal, to which business leaders and the education sector have protested vehemently. And in January 2013, says the report:

“ … the chairs of five parliamentary committees wrote to the prime minister, David Cameron, to recommend that the government remove international students from the net migration target. The degree of consensus between committees of both houses was described as ‘unprecedented.’”

The prime minister’s office did not agree with the argument put forth by the five committees.

Piecemeal improvements have marked the course

So far, the government has refused to consider to budge on its net migration targets, reacting instead to concerns about the health of the international education sector via a steady stream of statements and visa policy amendments.

It will be interesting to see how the government will receive the report’s stance that such measures are not sufficient to ensure the growth of the international education sector.

The role of agents in furthering the growth of international education in the UK

In the meantime, UK international education continues to move forward with important national marketing initiatives. Most recently, the British Council has made public a database of almost 4,000 agents around the world who have completed British Council training.

Kevin Van-Cauter, British Council International Higher Education Advisor, said:

“We do not accredit education agents or agencies but we hope the global trained agents database and roll-out of the advanced training will add greater assurance to institutions that they are getting the best possible services when it comes to international student recruitment, and therefore assurance to students that they will be accessing the best possible advice. For agents this is an opportunity to gain more skills and thus have a competitive advantage over competitors – it’s a win-win scenario.”

The database includes agents who have completed the British Council’s Foundation training programme for agents, and have signed on to an ethical code of practice based on the 2011 “London Statement”. All those listed in the database will also participate in a new Advanced Training Programme scheduled for launch in January 2014. The new programme will accept agents with several years’ experience who have completed the Education UK Certificate training within the last two years.

Next year, the British Council will create a tool that allows students to search on the database for agents as well.

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