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Light at the end of the Path(way)?

  • 12 May 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

The official support recently made available to higher education institutions, such as the bringing forward of payments from the Student Loans Company to universities, relates almost wholly to home students. This is unsurprising: they are the students who receive support from UK taxpayers, who will foot the bill for any costs. But it also ensures the support is not very accurately targeted because it is among international students where the real drops in recruitment are expected to happen.

In the years before the crisis, the UK largely stood still in relation to recruiting international students. Other countries – most notably Australia – forged ahead, as the picture below shows (lifted from a paper for the Centre for Global Higher Education by Simon Marginson).

The Home Office used to tell the higher education sector that it was more a problem of rhetoric than reality because there was no cap on international students. That was not so. For example, the tough rules imposed on post-study work drove Indian students, in particular, towards other countries – as we will show beyond all doubt in a major new report on the state of postgraduate education since the last crash, out this Thursday.

The rhetoric wasn’t perfect either of course. I attended the launch of the Britain is GREAT campaign among hotshot tech wizards in Silicon Valley in California. Each picture of Britain’s education system on display showed a picturesque Oxbridge college. Yet Jonny Ive, Apple’s key designer, learnt his craft at Newcastle Poly rather than New College, Oxford.

The challenge now is two-fold.

  1. How to support those institutions that miss out on the most international students, which are losing an important cross-subsidy for their research. Universities UK and others have echoed HEPI’s earlier calls for more research spending (see here and here) and, although this hasn’t a been a big feature in the announcements made so far, Ministers are still considering such pleas.
  2. How to show international students are still going to be very welcome in the UK. This is a short-, medium- and long-term challenge. But there are practical changes that could be made immediately to help specific groups of students and to instil confidence.

Covid-19 has impacted thousands of international higher education students either planning to study in the UK, or having already commenced their studies, and 5,000 of them are in the UK studying at Pathway colleges, currently preparing for university study. They stand to become over-stayers on the expiration of their visas when they complete pathway courses in June or July.

In normal times, most of these students would finish their Pathway year, return home to renew their visa and then arrive back in the UK for the beginning of their university studies in the autumn. Early this year, when it became clear that many students would be unable to travel home because of the pandemic, the Home Office announced international students would be able to renew their visas while still in the UK until the end of March. As helpful as this was, great anxiety was caused when, with no end of Covid-19 in sight and with one week until the end-of-March deadline, these students had had no indication whether a further visa extension would be granted. Finally, it was extended until the end of May.

Now, with the May deadline approaching, these Pathway students are facing the same predicament with an uncertain future and they are understandably worried about what the consequences will be if they are told to remain in the UK while their visas expire.

A longer-term approach is clearly needed. Across the sector, there are calls for the Government to extend the current arrangements to allow these students to switch or renew visas in the UK at least until the end of September. This would allow prospective students to start their next courses in the coming months without having to undertake unnecessary travel home, with the associated health risks and additional costs and disruption.

These are exactly the kinds of students we should do everything possible to keep: as current Pathway students, they have already been successful in satisfying visa requirements, enrolling in courses, attending classes and achieving academically. They have already proven their determination and desire to study in the UK. They could be the future leaders of their own countries. Yet we risk losing them to other opportunities, not helped by the anxiety and struggle they experience with the uncertainty of their visa status.

Competition among the key markets for international students will become even fiercer and UK higher education stands to lose a valuable and important source of revenue. If these students cannot or do not return to the UK, the numbers of international students enrolling in the next academic year will drop, reducing vital income for our universities. Even more importantly, it risks sending a signal that we are not serious about recovering our pre-eminent position (after the United States) in appealing to international students. We will succeed only if we remove unnecessary and unhelpful roadblocks and if we clearly communicate through our actions that international students are warmly welcome in the UK.

In the recent package of support for higher education institutions, there was a commitment to a new group chaired by Ministers to consider how the 2019 International Education Strategy ‘can be updated to respond to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.’ That is very welcome and no one should underestimate the new group’s potential importance. But some things cannot reasonably wait until it is properly up and running.

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