“Speculation” on student rhetoric “comes at a cost”

Universities UK has compiled both new and already available data on the graduate route, international student numbers and public sentiment around them in the UK.

The launch of the graduate route and policies to extend post study work rights in the International Education Strategy of 2019 have “driven substantial growth in international non-EU enrolments from 2019/20” to this year, data analysis detailed.

Growth in international student recruitment to the UK during that time has delivered a boost of more than £60bn to the UK’s economy, it continued.

It also suggested that net economic impact without the availability of the graduate route and the use of the IES would have remained significantly more stagnant in that time period. It also suggested international student numbers would never have risen like they have in the last five years without them.

Photo: London Economics

“International students make a big contribution to local economies right across the UK while they are here. When they go home, they are ambassadors for the UK around the world. Selling a British education is an export success story for the UK,” said John Foster, chief policy and campaigns officer for the CBI.

“This analysis shows that speculation comes with a cost, with uncertainty surrounding whether the government will change or withdraw the graduate visa already damaging UK universities’ competitiveness.”

UUK reiterated how recent policy changes and government rhetoric puts the country’s “continued success” at risk – one recent survey it conducted at over 70 universities showed “significant” enrolment decline in January 2024.

Postgraduate taught student numbers declined by “more than 40%”. Dependants were banned in January for master’s taught students in the UK.

“Our new data shows that if [the UK government] wanted to see a reduction in numbers, they have already achieved that through policy changes introduced earlier this year,” said Vivienne Stern, chief executive at UUK.

“If they go further, they will damage the economies of towns and cities throughout the UK, as well as many universities. Given we should be doing everything we can to promote economic growth, this seems to be getting the priorities wrong.”

Data from IDP also suggested students are looking more favourably at the US as the most “attractive” major study destination amid doubts surrounding the UK’s current rhetoric, as well as a new student cap in Canada and anti-migration measures in Australia.

Most recently, the Migration Advisory Committee has announced a rapid review the occupations listed first on the new Immigration Salary List – replacing the Occupation Shortage List – and clarified the impending salary thresholds, which have prompted questions from lawyers and students alike.

Further deterrent policy could materialise surrounding an impending review of the Graduate Route, for which Brian Bell, MAC chair, requested an update on commission timelines in the most recent rapid review’s covering letter – suggesting that it has yet to be started.

Small businesses especially benefit from the Graduate Route, said policy chair for the Federation of Small Businesses, which outlined its support amid the latest analysis.

“It gives small employers an opportunity to recruit skilled talent with reduced bureaucracy and without high immigration fees. It also allows employers to fill skills gaps which would otherwise stifle the growth of small and micro businesses,” said Tina McKenzie.

Other new data by Censuswide – commissioned by UUK – even suggests the UK public is “largely unaware of the positive economic contribution” international students make – only 3% of around 2,000 adults in the UK population said they believed the impact to be above £10bn.

The correct figure as reported by The PIE last year of London Economics data was £41.9bn.

Amid the Immigration Health Surcharge also rising in 2024, only 3% of those surveyed given three options chose the highest possible figure when asked what students should pay towards the NHS, with an average figure suggestion of just over £346.

“There is now a real danger of an over-correction”

Data on international students’ economic contribution from 2023 also suggested international students are already a “substantial net contributor” to the NHS.

“The number of international students coming to the UK is already falling, but there is now a real danger of an over-correction,” said Stern – something she had already voiced her concerns about after UCAS figures showed only a “modest” rise in undergraduate applications.

“We call on all political parties in the run up to a general election to reassure prospective international students that the UK remains open, and the Graduate visa here to stay. Any further knee-jerk reforms could have serious consequences for jobs across the country, economic growth, and UK higher education institutions,” she added.


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