Policy Briefing: Immigration and Higher Education – A UK Perspective

Policy Briefing: Immigration and Higher Education – A UK Perspective

Jo Attwooll (Universities UK)

Immigration is likely to be one of, if not the most hotly contested issues of the next British general election in May 2015. It is already clear from the rise of UKIP that the issue will be one on which individual constituencies will be won or lost. But what does this mean for universities the length and breadth of the UK who benefit so much from the presence of international staff and students?

Higher education is increasingly global
There is little doubt that higher education, like the business world, is becoming an increasingly global phenomenon. Students are more mobile than ever and increasing numbers are seeking a higher education experience outside of their home country. According to the OECD 2.1 million students sought tertiary level education outside of their home nation in 2000, rising to 4.5 million in 2012. In 2009, it was estimated that the number could increase to 7 million by 2020.

Universities around the world are now being judged on how international their outlook is, in terms of staff, students and research. The increasing mobility of higher education students has coincided with the immigration debate in the UK reaching peak intensity. The coalition government has embarked on a lengthy programme of measures to cut net migration to below 100,000. The inclusion of international students in this target has invariably impacted universities and will continue to do so unless a change of approach occurs.

How international is the UK higher education sector?
The UK is the second most popular destination for international students with a 12.6% share of the market for international-mobile students, behind only the United States. Within the UK, one in eight higher education students (13%) are from outside of the EU (2012/13). This is an increase from 10% five years earlier. Around one in four postgraduate students – both in taught and research programmes – are non-EU. The staffing profile of universities is also increasingly international. International staff comprises 11% of all academic staff in UK universities (2012–13) and a much higher proportion in certain strategically important subjects such as science and engineering.

Why does it matter?
International students bring many benefits to the UK, which have been well articulated in recent years: they bring diversity to campus life and enhance the student experience for ‘home’ students; they support the provision of certain subjects, particularly at postgraduate level; and they provide a valuable source of income to universities and to local economies via expenditure on and off campus. The contribution of international students to the UK economy is an estimated £7 billion both in fees and off-campus expenditure, supporting 137,000 full-time equivalent jobs across the country in the process. In a growing market, there is room for further expansion.

Recent research indicates that those who study in the UK and return home (or go elsewhere) to work are likely to leave with a positive view of the UK plus substantial personal and professional connections. In a 2013 study carried out for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), 90% of the international graduates interviewed agreed that their perception of the UK had improved as a result of studying here. A separate BIS report revealed that 78% intended to develop professional links with organisations in the UK in future. As many international graduates go on to take up influential positions in their home countries, these personal links and bonds are likely to be an important contributor to the UK’S ‘soft power’; a view supported by the findings of a recent inquiry by the Lords Committee on Soft Power.

But it’s not all plain sailing…
After years of growth, the total number of non-EU enrolments fell for the first time in 16 years in 2012/13 (latest official figures available). Although this decline was small – in the region of 1% – it is noteworthy because the number of students seeking a tertiary-level education overseas is growing. Furthermore, the number of overseas entrants has fallen for two consecutive years – a worrying 4% decline for postgraduate taught courses. In some countries the decline has been particularly stark – a 49% decrease in international students from India over a two year period. This comparative stagnation is a major cause for concern.

The impact on non-EU staff has been less negative. To date, the limited number of visas for highly skilled workers has not caused significant issues. However, with economic recovery comes the risk of that UK companies will increase recruitment from abroad, a development that will result in greater competition for the limited visas available.

And the competition is heating up…
Despite its historically strong performance, the UK faces ever-increasing competition to attract international students and academics to its shores. Cast your eyes outside of the UK and the landscape is awash with ambition.  Close competitors such as Australia, Canada and Germany are adopting aggressive and long-term strategies to increase international student numbers.

In Canada, the government’s 2014 International Education Strategy includes a target to attract more than 450,000 international students to the country by 2022, from 265,400 in 2012. In Australia, the government recently introduced generous post-study work entitlements and streamlined visa processing in an attempt to lure students back to the country. In early 2014, Germany’s coalition government finalised a treaty pledging to internationalise higher education by attracting more non-EU students to its universities. This includes an aim to increase the overall number of foreign students from 300,000 in 2013 to 350,000 by the end of the decade and attract the international academic elite.

With such fierce international competition, the UK’s status as the second most popular study destination is far from secure. In fact, comparing the growth rates of foreign student entrants into UK higher education to those of our closest competitors and it becomes clear that in recent years the UK has been outperformed.  And these ambitious declarations appear to be working. The United States, Canada and Australia are outperforming the UK. In the past two years the UK’s relative stagnation has been in stark contrast to the increases in international students occurring in other nations in 2013; Australia [8% growth], Canada [4% growth] and the US [10% growth].

The UK has its own international education strategy – launched in July 2013. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction but it could be more ambitious. Where other countries declare impressive growth targets, the UK’s strategy contains a rather vague assertion that it is realistic for numbers to grow by 15-20% over the next five years.

Perceptions matter
In a world of increasing choice and ever-expanding access to information, perceptions are hugely important. This poses both opportunities and threats to UK universities. There are a greater number of channels to reach out to prospective students but on the flip side these channels are often the conduit for more negative messages. Tough government rhetoric designed to appease a concerned electorate can rapidly escalate into articles in the Times of India declaring that the UK is no longer ‘open for business’.

The many changes to the UK’s immigration system in recent years have provided fodder for the foreign media and indeed have been capitalised upon by some of our competitors. A 2013 survey of education agents suggests that the UK is perceived to be a less attractive destination than in previous years. In 2013, 63% of agents rated the UK as ‘very attractive’, lower than the United States (73%) and Canada (64%). Back in 2008, the same survey of agents suggested that the UK was in fact the most attractive destination at that time – 71% rated the UK as ‘very attractive’, compared to 68% for the United States.

Attempts have been made to address these issues including high profile political delegations such as the Prime Minister’s trip to India in 2013 and the Universities Minister’s trip in 2014. But more could and should be done.

What do the British public want?
There is little doubt that the British public are concerned about immigration – they want a system then can trust, they want migrants to make a contribution, they want abuse of the immigration system to be addressed. But their views are far more nuanced than a wholesale desire to see the numbers slashed come what may. In fact, the general public express high levels of support for international students and highly skilled migrants.  Recent research conducted by ICM on behalf of Universities UK and British Future provides compelling evidence to support the notion that vast swathes of the British population don’t even view international students as immigrants (only 22% do). Furthermore, when given the choice, 59% of the public say the government should not reduce international student numbers even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall. This rises to 66% amongst Conservative voters.

The issue of post-study work opportunities has also hit the headlines recently following the Home Secretary’s proposal – now seemingly quashed by Conservative colleagues – that international students should leave the country on completion of their courses. This statement attracted significant public criticism from amongst others business leaders such as James Dyson. This proposal appears once more to be at odds with public opinion. 75% think that international students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating from British universities, using their skills for the benefit of the UK economy, for at least a period of time. Broken down by political party preference, support is highest among Conservative voters, with a total of 81% thinking that international students should be allowed to stay and work for some period of time after graduating.

What’s on the horizon?
In advance of the general election, there are further changes afoot. The implementation of the Immigration Act 2014 has repercussions for both international staff and students.

Firstly, the Act introduces an NHS surcharge, payable in advance by any individual applying for a visa lasting more than six months. The surcharge (£150 per annum for students and £200 per annum for others) will be payable up-front and will apply to visa applicants and each of their dependents. A professor coming to the UK for the three years accompanied by their spouse and two dependent children would therefore face paying £2,400. This has potential repercussions on institutions who may find that world-leading and highly sought-after academics are unwilling to meet this financial outlay.

The Act also introduces a requirement for residential landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants before entering into a tenancy agreement with them. University owned and managed accommodation is exempt from this requirement but any international students or staff seeking private rental accommodation will need to prove their immigration status before they can secure a property.

Liberty described the policy as “offensive, unworkable and [leading] to discrimination” during the passage of the Bill. The requirement has been rolled out in the West Midlands and it remains to be seen when a national roll-out will occur.

The growing case for change
On a more positive note, there is growing political support for a different approach. In the past few years six parliamentary committees have made the same recommendation – to take students out of the net migration target. This is unprecedented particularly across such a diverse range of committees including the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Public Accounts Committee.

What will set the UK on the right path?
It is clear that a change of approach is needed. Universities UK is asking that any government after May 2015 works with universities to attract qualified international students and staff to the UK.

In particular, we are asking that the incoming government:

  • launches an international student growth strategy backed by investment to support international marketing, mobility and partnerships
  • removes international students from any net migration target
  • communicates a welcoming and consistent message to international students and staff
  • enhances opportunities for qualified international graduates to stay in the UK to work and contribute to the economy


Universities UK (2014) ‘International Students in Higher Education: The UK and its Competition’, series on The Funding Environment for Universities 2014, Report 4.


Jo Attwooll is Policy Advisor at Universities UK with responsibility for international issues including immigration. Jo has worked on various Migration Advisory Committee reviews, and has also worked extensively on the HEGlobal initiative designed to assist the higher education sector in developing its transnational education (TNE) activities. She is a member of the UK Border Agency’s Joint Education Taskforce.