A fully referenced version of this letter was sent to Theresa May (Home Secretary) and Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary) today.
Dear Home Secretary,
Recent media reports have suggested that your department has backed proposals to make international graduates return to their ‘home’ country before applying for work visas. This is a worrying development which we believe will have significant detrimental effects on the UK higher education sector, the UK economy, and the lives of those involved. As academics employed in UK higher education, informed by many years working with international students, we respectfully set out below why we believe these plans must not be followed, sincerely hoping these concerns and points will be considered in any future decision making.
The UK’s continued reputation for delivering high quality higher education is evidenced through the UK’s significant share of the international student market (approximately 13%).Data from HESA (2012/13) shows the importance of students from outside the UK: 41% of postgraduate research students and 47% of postgraduate taught students are from a non UK domicile. These figures rise when considering full time study, where 71% of postgraduate taught students were from non UK domicile with 40% coming from Asia. It is evident that the fees paid by international students or their sponsors are a key source of revenue for the UK higher education sector. In addition, the Government’s own data points to the billions of pounds which international students bring to the UK economy in fees and living expenses. Any efforts which may inadvertently reduce the number of international students coming to the UK will have significant negative effects on the finances of the sector.
Recent academic evidence has pointed to the successes of previous initiatives to promote UK higher education to international students. Specifically, the importance of UK Government policies for attracting high quality international students from developing economies. Also, a recent Universities UK report (Foreword written Mark Field, MP) also recommends that the Government should enhance efforts to support international students to work in the UK. Further, the internationalisation of higher education opens opportunities for cross-cultural information and knowledge sharing.
Conflating dangerous narratives around migration with international student numbers and subsequent work visas is not in the interests of any government. Research shows the value that the electorate place on international students, with most voters expressing no desire to reduce numbers. Further, most voters recognise the value of international student fees for supporting UK higher education as well as the value of international students in furthering the UK’s excellent global reputation. However, a recent survey from the NUS suggests that most non-EU students already feel unwelcome in the UK as a result of Governmental policies and attitudes towards migration.
Our own experiences as university lecturers show that international students add considerable diversity of experiences and perspectives to the classroom. The knowledge sharing between UK and international students broadens the university experience for both groups. It can be argued that this is the role of education, and we have a duty of care to all students who choose to undertake their studies in the UK. More poignantly, we hear international students sharing their concerns about their future after graduation. Specifically, their fears that they will not be able to work in the UK. For many students/graduates, returning ‘home’ to apply for a visa is undesirable not only for economic reasons, but also political ones. Women students especially have shared their concerns that returning to their ‘home’ country will result in pressures to marry and have children with any hope of a career lost. Anecdotally, students have said that changes to postgraduate visa requirements may affect decisions to study in the UK. Through PhD supervision and personal experience, we know many international PhD students wish to work in the UK and often within research/teaching roles. They wish to undertake research which will be of economic, scientific and cultural value to the UK. These postgraduate students also engage in teaching and supporting undergraduate students in developing not only subject specific skills, but also helping them to prepare for the world of work.
We should be proud of the education we are able to offer international students and the contributions that these students make to economic and cultural life in the UK. Any effort to prevent these graduates from working in the UK after they have completed their studies will damage not only the UK’s reputation worldwide, but also potentially cause unnecessary and preventable harm to the economic sustainability of the UK higher education sector. Further, the UK will lose highly skilled workers who wish to add to the cultural and economic vibrancy of this country. Barriers to post-graduation work visas for international students and the potential subsequent fall in student numbers is not in the interest of the UK economy, higher education sector, and international reputation. We hope that the Home Office will reconsider these proposals.
Drs Katherine Sang and Rebecca Finkel