Welcoming international students to the UK is pro-growth
With the exception of Suella Braverman, most government ministers agree that United Kingdom higher education is a global success story, and a key measure of this success is our attractiveness to international students.
In 2019, following years of stagnation driven by restrictive policy and hostile rhetoric, the government set out a new International Education Strategy which included an explicit ambition to grow international student numbers to more than 600,000 a year. Last year, ahead of schedule, this target was met – and we have continued to see interest in the UK as a study destination to grow.
This, one might assume, should be something to celebrate. Indeed, ministers from across government have done so, with the Department for Education and Department for International Trade (as recently as last week) heralding our success. And so it was troubling to see that the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, chose to make a number of alarming statements about international students throughout the Conservative Party Conference.
There isn’t a single parliamentary constituency that doesn’t benefit from international students
The comments made by Braverman over the course of the Conference escalated quickly. It was claimed that international students do not contribute to economic growth. That too many were choosing the UK. That these students are bringing too many dependents with them. And, by the final day of the Conference, an explicit suggestion that we should look to cut numbers – and that this would, oddly, be consistent with the government’s growth agenda.
But even a cursory look at the data shows this to be false. International students are, overwhelmingly, net contributors to the UK economy to the tune of at least £25.9bn a year. There isn’t a single parliamentary constituency that doesn’t benefit from international students (including Suella Braverman’s Fareham constituency, where our research showed a net benefit of more than £20m a year).
This is why the government launched their cross-departmental strategy to grow education export earnings to £35 billion by 2030. It is an unashamedly pro-growth strategy which recognises the huge benefits that can be realised for communities across the whole of the UK. And as international students are responsible for around 70 per cent of all education export earnings, to reverse course now would be a body blow to the realisation of this ambition.
These are genuine, qualified students, who can prove that they will support themselves and their families, and who have paid the NHS health surcharge up front.
This does not mean it should be a free for all – and it is not. Universities have to comply with stringent Home Office requirements to recruit international students, and any growth in international number has to be agreed with UKVI, based on detailed plans about how this growth is being managed. Potential students also have to meet strict requirements.
It is also untrue that international students are displacing UK undergraduate students. This year a record number of UK 18-year-olds have secured a place at university or college after sitting their exams. It is the case, however, that the current level of funding provided by the government for research and domestic teaching is no longer covering the cost of provision for universities across the UK. This creates a real risk that future growth of places will be constrained, just as the number of 18-year-olds in the population is rapidly increasing.
As a country we need to find a long-term and sustainable model for funding teaching and research. One that is fair for students, parents, graduates and the taxpayer but also covers the costs for universities. This is vital if we are to ensure it remains the case that any qualified UK student, who wants to, is able to access higher education in the UK.
Now is the time to build on the UK’s leading position in international higher education. This does not mean pursuing growth at any cost – now that the government’s ambition has been met, the focus should be on maintaining our position and fostering sustainable growth from a wide range of countries. To do so, we should continue to welcome international students to the UK, and value the contribution that they - and their families – make to our country.
Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool.
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