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Rethinking the Limit on International Students: Lessons from Dutch and Danish Experiences

  • 8 December 2023
  • By Tijs Broeke
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Tijs Broeke, Chair of the Board of Governors at London Metropolitan University.

As reported by The Times, the boss of one of the world’s most influential investment firms has called for “consistency” in the government’s business strategy, pointing out that Britain has had six chancellors and four prime ministers since 2019.

On stage with Rishi Sunak at the government’s global investment summit at Hampton Court Palace recently, Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, the private equity group, said: “Something that people in the government may not be as sensitive to is that people like us need consistency. We need to be able to trust what’s going to be happening.”

Businesses are not alone in calling for consistency. Universities also need clarity. Take the political discussion on immigration and recruitment of international students – universities across Europe are increasingly becoming collateral damage in this broader political discourse around immigration. With loud political voices advocating to restrict the entry of international students into their educational systems.

The UK government, for instance, grapples with a clear tension between its official aspirations to increase international student numbers and its commitment to reduce net migration. While the 2021 International Education Strategy aims to attract 600,000 international students yearly by 2030, the government recently announced new visa restrictions this year, purportedly to substantially reduce migration.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, the previous government under Mark Rutte had intended to limit the influx of foreign students, a stance echoed by Wilders’ right-wing PVV and the centre-right NSC, both gaining significant seats in recent elections. The argument revolves around the perceived financial burdens and strains on housing and public services due to international students.

Wilder’s election manifesto highlighted concerns about the Netherlands suffering damage due to mass immigration, proposing restrictions on “student migration” by offering bachelor’s courses only in Dutch and capping foreign students in master’s courses—an idea supported by VVD and NSC. These parties now hold a parliamentary majority post-election.

During Dutch election debates, advocates against reducing English-language education and imposing stricter admission criteria for foreign students often referenced Denmark. Why? Denmark restricted access to its educational system in 2021, citing the financial burden posed by increasing numbers of foreign students. Denmark’s system of free education for Danish and European students coupled with student grants led to soaring costs.

However, Denmark is now shifting its stance. Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science, Christina Egelund, emphasises the need for a different approach. She highlights the dire need for staff across sectors and the risk of businesses relocating due to talent shortages. The Danish Chamber of Commerce forecasts a shortage of 130,000 people across various sectors. Moreover, Denmark’s success in retaining post-graduation students is seen as a valuable return on investment.

Universities and others in the UK have warned the Government about the negative consequences of limiting their ability to recruit international students. Professor Brian Bell, the chair of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee, for example, warned this could “send many universities over the edge”, particularly in poorer regions.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Most universities for most courses lose money on teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students. If you close down the international route I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”

“If you’re interested in the levelling-up agenda, you might want to worry about harming universities around Britain,” the economics professor added.

In May 2023 an analysis by London Economics for HEPI, Kaplan and Universities UK estimated first-year international students enrolled in the 2021/22 academic year would bring total net economic benefits to the UK £37.4 billion. Estimated total economic benefits were approximately £41.9 billion, while estimated total costs were £4.4 billion.

Alongside these economic benefits, surveys by HEPI and others have shown international students benefit the UK higher education experience by bringing an outward-looking culture to campuses and preparing students for working in a global environment. For example, HEPI has shown that, in mid-2023, over one-quarter of the world’s countries (58) were headed by someone educated in the UK, which is second only to the USA (65). Talking about soft power and Global Britain.

Speaking to university leaders, the rhetoric surrounding immigration is damaging to perceptions in overseas key markets. The removal of the dependent visa is feeding this narrative and will impact postgraduate courses, which is the main source of recent income growth, as does the potential removal of the graduate route visa. Slow UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) processing (e.g. CAS requests and student visa processing) is driving instability as institutions cannot plan. The focus from UKVI on reducing particular markets and diversification is contributing to perceptions of an unwelcoming environment, particularly when the UK has more market diversity than competitors.

Both in the Netherlands and the UK, universities and scientific institutions therefore rightly emphasise the detrimental impact of acquiring an international reputation as a nation unwelcoming to foreigners. Egelund acknowledges this impact, stating, “International media report on domestic policies, and those policies send a signal to the international community.”

A government seriously committed to long-term economic and geopolitical interests would be prudent to heed these lessons. Unfortunately, populism seems to impede the pursuit of sensible policies for now.

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1 comment

  1. Shabir Elahi says:

    The Union flag in the accompanying photograph is upside down.

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