- This blog has been written for HEPI by Jo Johnson, who the Minister for Universities and Science (2015-18 and 2019). He is Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee undertaking a special inquiry into 11-16 education. He is Chairman of FutureLearn, the digital learning platform, and of Access Creative College, the largest independent provider of specialist further education for the creative industries. He is also Chairman International of ApplyBoard, an education technology platform. The blog is based on a speech Lord Johnson made a few days ago to the Westminster Higher Education Forum.
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The future for international students in the UK should be bright, provided the sector reforms and deals with issues that have surfaced during the last couple of years of growth.
The political consensus that was so supportive of growth in international student numbers in 2019 has weakened.
It would be easy for the sector simply to cry foul, and to say that universities have become caught up in the backwash of small boats and that, in the general push to reduce net migration, international students are collateral damage.
I think that would be a mistake.
The economic benefits that international students bring are well-understood in Westminster.
Not least thanks to the excellent HEPI / Universities UK / Kaplan / London Economics research on this subject showing the economic benefit of international students rose from £31.3 billion to £41.9 billion between 2018/19 and 2021/22.
And so too are the benefits they bring to our universities and wider society.
On average, each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies in the UK is £58 million better off because of international students – equivalent to approximately £560 per citizen.
But the economic benefits are not enough to offset wider political concerns.
A sustainable model needs to recognise that the crackdown on international students was fuelled by four main concerns:
- The first concern, a false narrative really, is that international students are displacing domestic students and making it harder for qualified domestic students to secure places than it otherwise would be. You may find it ironic that it’s the same people who want fewer people to go to university who feel this most keenly, but put that to one side. This is an increasingly real political question and it needs the sector to marshal stronger evidence to support its position that the two groups are symbiotic, complementing each other, rather than locked in zero-sum conflict for a fixed number of seats. The fact that much of the recent growth in international student numbers has been at postgraduate level, which is not where the bulk of domestic students are concentrated, is an important aspect of this debate and one that the sector needs to highlight if it wants to land this argument effectively. Similarly, the sector needs to do a better job at explaining that international students make viable courses that would otherwise not be offered, thereby increasing choice for domestic students.
- Concerns that a number of universities are actually selling immigration into the UK rather than education. This is a point that has been made frequently in the debate around the changes to the dependant policy, including in this Government’s own remarks. Under current immigration rules, the two years students can spend on the post-study work Graduate Route visa does not count towards the five years needed to secure indefinite leave to remain (ILR). Breaking the link between study routes and ILR was an important part of the debate around the reintroduction of post-study work and the Government is now planning, sensibly, to close a loophole allowing students to drop out and switch to a skilled worker visa in the middle of their studies. Quite why this was possible in the first place has surprised many in this debate and may in part explain the recent surge in drop-out rates in students from India and Bangladesh.
- Mounting concerns around inadequate document verification generally, but especially with respect to maintenance funds. This concern about universities effectively offering a backdoor immigration route has been compounded by evidence that the system of ensuring that students actually have the funds that they claim to have for their maintenance is not working – evidence during the pandemic when work opportunities were harder to come by suggested many suffered hardship, with some becoming dependent on food banks. One food bank in London revealed it was feeding over 1,000 international students a week. Further focus in the media has been on international students sometimes living in overcrowded conditions, with reports of as many as 15-20 people sharing housing intended for a fraction of that number.
- Finally, there are concerns that a lack of diversity in the international student body is leading to dangerous dependencies on China and India, which are bad for the sector’s financial resilience and harmful to the learning experience that universities offer. It’s of course true that the package of measures restricting international Master’s students from bringing dependants will compound the concentration of Chinese students and represent a significant headwind to diversification the Government wants – but that’s another matter. A sector that fails to diversify recruitment from other countries and to raise the quality of students entering the system is going to lose significant political support.
In this context, the package of measures that the Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced the other day could have been more sweeping and done much more damage to the UK’s competitive position in the market for international education.
UUK and Sir Steve Smith, as international education champion, deserve huge credit for ensuring that the sector’s voice was properly represented during the long and difficult gestation of this package of measures. They did well to preserve the essential policy architecture of the Graduate Route and to ensure that there was a re-affirmation of the International Education Strategy.
That said, it’s clear to me that the days of Government support for further growth in numbers are over. It was striking that the statement spoke of the target of 600,000 in that strategy, and of the success in meeting it for two years running, but no longer in terms of ‘at least’ 600,000. Those two words have gone missing. The best interpretation of this is that the appetite for higher targets has diminished. The worst interpretation is that 600k is seen as a de facto number cap – which would of course mean that the UK higher education sector will need to accept that it will continue to lose share in the market for international education to competitor countries.
It also means that transnational education (TNE) and online provision are going to be an increasingly important for the future of international higher education for UK universities.
So we’re at an important moment, when the sector needs to do much more to win back political support for international students in our system. I’m sad that we’ve reached this position because so much of this was avoidable and could have been avoided if more had done to tackle the abuse that was creeping in around the edges of an overheating system.
I will suggest four reforms that the sector and its regulator, the Office for Students, should embrace pro-actively before the Home Office returns for round two.
1. Address regulatory lacunae on quality: B3 conditions for non-continuation and completion should be applied and published with respect to international students as well, not just domestic ones. The great Janet Ilieva of Education Insights has done some important work highlighting very high drop-out rates for students from certain countries. Approaching 25% for students from India and Bangladesh: this is entirely unacceptable and damaging to the reputation of the system. The OfS needs to get a grip on this and highlight where weaknesses lie in the system to avoid contagion.
2. International student plans: The OfS should expect universities to publish an annual statement on their international student recruitment plans, as a kind of counterpart to the Access and Participation Plans that are required for their domestic admissions policies. This should enable the regulator to gain insights into individual recruitment strategies – and the risks they may be running – as well as an overall picture of trends across the sector. At the moment, there is a striking absence of forward-looking information in the public domain about the composition of the international student body, and the backward-looking data from HESA is pretty stale. We need greater visibility into the plans universities have to diversify their international student populations and also greater accountability to domestic stakeholders keen to ensure that widening international participation doesn’t come at the expense of widening domestic participation. Universities should as part of their international student recruitment plans be required to explain what part of their growth will be from TNE and online delivery of higher education.
3. Collective action to weed out poor quality and fraudulent applications: Universities need to act collectively to help cool things down, and UUK needs to play a co-ordinating role to avoid institutions suffering first mover disadvantage. Universities should do a number of things to raise the quality of applications flooding into the system:
- Charge an application fee for international students – this is in universities’ interests, since all the evidence is that higher application fees result in higher enrolment conversion rates, the benefits of which more than offset lost applications. Universities with free applications spend at least twice as much time evaluating applicants without receiving any benefit in return.
- Require that tuition fees be paid upfront, not least to weed out those who plan to drop out.
- Require that maintenance funds be put in escrow at the start of the year, borrowing from Canada’s ‘guaranteed investment certificate’ (GIC) system. All applicants should be able to provide irrefutable evidence of their financial wherewithal via the purchase of a GIC, which they would receive after putting their first year’s maintenance funds in a sterling escrow account, from which they can draw down in instalments during the year. A Canada-style GIC would help address related problems of fraud and diversification. Many universities need to diversify their international student bodies but are wary of accepting applicants from countries not on the Home Office’s narrow “low-risk” list, fearing they will lose their sponsorship licence if their visa refusal rates exceed a 10 per cent threshold. A key risk to their licences is from rogue agents providing students with forged bank statements or recycling the same funding to multiple applicants to enable them to circumvent the legitimate financial support requirements of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI). To protect their standing with UKVI, some universities have made de facto no-go areas of certain countries or regions where this kind of fraud is occurring. The existence of these discriminatory ‘blacklist’ policies is not just abhorrent in itself, it is also holding back much-needed diversification of the UK’s international student body and damaging the broader Global Britain agenda.
4. Greater accountability for recruitment agents: OfS, using data from UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration] where necessary, should maintain a register of recruitment agents, and publish Key Performance Indicators relating to visa refusals, as well as non-continuation and completion rates broken down by agent. Agents play an important and valuable part in the UK international education system and it’s reasonable for the regulator to support best practice in the sector by helping institutions gravitate towards those helping to support the reputation of UK higher education.
As a strong advocate for international students in our system, I am conscious that there is much to lose from further crackdowns. These are some ideas for ways the sector can quickly put in place sensible reforms of its own design. If they are implemented swiftly, they should help rebuild the political consensus necessary for UK universities to compete freely in this global market in years to come.