- This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Anne Marie Graham, the Chief Executive of UKCISA (UK Council of International Student Affairs).
After months of media speculation about proposed policy changes affecting international students studying in the UK, May 2023 finally saw a UK Government statement of intent – namely, to restrict the number of dependents coming to the UK with international students on postgraduate taught programmes. This has now been reflected in the Immigration Rules, clarifying the detail for student sponsors and international students after weeks of uncertainty.
The statement also signposted areas where this government intends to do further work. UKCISA is particularly keen to ensure that the government works with our members and international student representatives on the review of maintenance requirements to help ensure that there is parity and proportionality in any policy. It’s true to say that we are experiencing the highest level of international student applications and enrolments in the UK. This growth comes from markets that are demographically more likely to bring dependants with them for a lengthy period of study.
The growth in these markets – particularly India and Nigeria – is not surprising given that they were targeted by this government’s own International Education Strategy. The UK’s International Education Champion, Professor Sir Steve Smith, has arguably knocked his targets out of the proverbial park in terms of international recruitment from these strategically important markets.
Any restriction on dependants for postgraduate taught students is extremely worrying, as this could materially damage many institutions’ ability to diversify their recruitment. After all, as UKCISA’s recent annual policy review shows, 64% of international students are undertaking postgraduate taught degrees, often ensuring that these courses are financially viable for domestic students to benefit from. Significant cuts to this cohort can only be detrimental to both the sector and this government’s ambitions and will undoubtedly have a more marked impact. The recent announcement confirming upcoming increases to visa fees and the immigration health surcharge will put further pressure on the UK and the competitiveness of its international education offer, and government rhetoric about the quality of university courses will do little to support the UK’s reputation with prospective students.
Ahead of the latest migration statistics release in May, HEPI, Universities UK International, Kaplan and London Economics published some timely analysis of the economic benefits of international students.
This element of the executive summary really struck a chord with me:
…a more joined-up approach towards international students across different government departments, co-ordinated by the centre of Whitehall, would be preferable to the damaging rumours, leaks and counter-leaks heard from different departments over recent years. Voters rightly expect secure borders and clear rules, but the presence of international students also enjoys huge public support, improves our education system, helps employers, and boosts the UK’s reputation abroad.
So, while the exponential growth of students’ dependants has put some pressure on the sector, it is essential to consider the benefits that international students and their dependants bring to the UK in return. We must identify different solutions to this pressure, instead of banning dependants altogether, to ensure we can sustain the growth throughout the challenges of the current policy environment.
To do that, we can look at the Graduate route, which this government has restated its commitment to maintaining in its current form. This route is immensely attractive to international students. As is the case for home students – if you’re paying high tuition fees, you naturally look for a return on your investment. Employability is a principal and obvious return on investment factor, especially as it takes many forms.
Enhancements to the Graduate route are also necessary to offset the impact of the dependant policy and other changes. There are other actions that this government should take at a policy level, and that organisations working with UKCISA can take at a sector level.
- There should be additional provision for entry clearance for the Graduate route, for those who have recently completed their course. This is particularly important given that UCU marking boycotts may prevent international students from completing their course in the time left on their Student visa. This is not a problematic policy change, but it is urgent, and can and should be implemented as soon as possible by the UK Government.
- Graduate route visa holders should be able to bring in dependants – currently, this is not permitted and results in eligible dependants having to come to the UK while their family member holds Student route permission. This policy change would alleviate some of the pressures on the Dependant route, and enable many individuals to find work and relevant accommodation before bringing their family members to the UK. Additionally, students should be removed from the net migration statistics. International students and their dependants are predominantly temporary migrants, who return home or to a third country at the end of their time studying or working in the UK.
- The UK Government should support the sector in providing clear official communications for employers on the Graduate route, and its offer and benefits for a wide range of UK employers. It should also remove the charge for employers who employ someone to switch from the Graduate route to Skilled Worker route.
- The sector must identify an effective way to collect better data on international graduate outcomes, not as an optional paid-for extra, but as an intrinsic commitment to the international student experience. Our sector needs to be able to tell prospective students what their predecessors have achieved and paint a clear picture of their outcomes along the way. Employability is not always joining a graduate programme at a multinational employer – international students are individuals, with their own specific motivations and ambitions, and measure success in different ways depending on their career objectives. We should not be afraid to collect and analyse this data.
These changes are a much more practical and progressive way to ensure that the UK remains able to welcome the many international students who want to come here to study and live, to benefit from our world-class education sector and all it has to offer.