Comment: Immigration policy could end Britain’s higher education supremacy for good

By James Pitman

I read with dismay the 40 Group of Tory MPs' suggestion of a cap on international students attending universities outside the UK’s top 30.

International education is worth billions to the economy and creates thousands of jobs – some in these MPs’ own constituencies. Whether the proposal put forward in ‘40 Policy Ideas From The 40’ goes any further or not, it really does not deserve air-time at all.

The higher education sector has enough to contend with, with constantly changing and poorly consulted rules and regulations and the bungling of the UKBA/Home Office. It has shown great nimbleness in adapting to the “new normal” in which the government relentlessly targets one of the country’s most valuable exports as it tries to meet its pre-election pledge to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands.

It’s no exaggeration that a cap on international students would very likely spell the end of Britain's 1,000-year history as one of the world's premier higher education destinations.

The details of the 40’s suggested policy expose the ignorance of the authors with regards to the public's opinion on international students and to UK higher education in general and they should not go unchallenged.

Considering that the Migration Observatory has found that when discussing immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers and least likely to think of students, I’m sceptical that their proposal reflects what they’ve heard from “swing voters on the doorsteps in [their] constituencies”.

And as for their assertion that international students place a strain on local services and housing, there is also plenty of evidence that immigrants, and particularly students, actually put far more into the economy than they take out. As far back as 2008/09, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimated the value of UK education exports to be £14.1 billion.

More recently, Oxford Economics working with the University of Exeter established that the contribution of international students to the city’s GDP would be £88.3 million in 2011/12, supporting nearly 2,880 jobs. And the same group produced a similar report this year with the University of Sheffield that concluded international students contributed £120 million a year to that city’s economy. It has been predicted that the number of international students might rise to approximately eight million by 2020 and it is economically vital that the UK remains a desirable study destination.

Perhaps most jarring of all, however, is the 40’s definition of the brightest and best – i.e. only those attending the top 30 universities. Putting aside the contempt this shows for domestic students attending the other 80 or so universities in the UK, it also fails to acknowledge that the best students do not necessarily go to the highest ranked universities. Many choose HE institutions that although further down the list have excellent specialist departments with notable alumni successes. Prominent examples include the University for the Creative Arts or the University of Lincoln, which has an excellent media department.

This is evidence of the UK higher education system’s strength in depth; its rich diversity is a cornerstone of its excellent international reputation. But to say, as the 40 do, that their proposal would create "a very real incentive for universities to reach the highest standards while also saying to those offering courses of limited academic value that the UK will not continue to support what is often a purely moneymaking exercise, offering no real benefit to students or to our academic sector” is insulting to domestic students and staff at these universities and potentially damaging to the UK’s overseas reputation.

The government's pre-election promise to reduce net migration to the arbitrary target of tens of thousands has affected the one group that puts little to no strain on the resources of this country, and that the public rightly worries least about. The prime minister needs to be exceptionally careful in his reaction to this pamphlet, as other countries wouldn’t hesitate to use any kind of support for the proposed ideas to their advantage. Especially as negative stories about visa bonds and increasing visa application bureaucracy have already had their recent share of column inches.

International students, whatever and wherever they study, should be classified as 'education tourists' – reflecting their true intellectual, cultural, and financial value – and be removed from the net migration count altogether. They create jobs and forge lasting relationships with the UK aiding the development of 'soft power' in later years. The government needs to take responsibility for creating an environment where ludicrous suggestions like an international student cap are made, and ensure these marginal-seat MPs looking to claim the populist vote, don’t do even more harm.

James Pitman is the managing director HE – UK and Europe at international education provider Study Group.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.