How to fix the international student debacle

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The writer, a former universities minister, is a visiting professor at King’s College London and chairman of global digital skills platform FutureLearn

Universities need a concordat with government on international students. Political support for them peaked five years ago, when post-study work rights were reintroduced in a new International Education Strategy that aimed to increase education exports to £35bn per year by 2030. It is now weakening in the run-up to the general election. International students are caught up in toxic debates about immigration. They also stand accused of displacing domestic ones and lowering entry standards at institutions facing financial pressure from capped domestic tuition fees.

The danger is that the government now overcorrects, with further sweeping measures to restrict numbers. Demand from overseas for the coming academic year is already plummeting at the postgraduate level following changes announced last May: these included stopping most masters students from bringing dependants. Universities UK, the sector’s representative body, says recruitment is “very challenging”.

A five-point agreement could reduce the pressure on one of the UK’s few globally competitive sectors.

First, Westminster must fix the funding crisis. With domestic fees frozen for all but one of the last 10 years, universities lose money teaching home undergraduates. The government must inflation-proof fees, ideally by linking increased funding to outcomes and aligning interests of universities, taxpayers and students. Such a mechanism exists in the Higher Education and Research Act and was used in 2017 to lift fees to £9,250. Institutions that deliver great outcomes, as assessed by the Teaching Excellence Framework, should once again be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation.

Second, the government should ensure the Office for National Statistics only counts international students as net migration when they stay on post-study. In this framework, they would be included in migration figures when they transfer from the student visa to a graduate route or work visa. Otherwise, they would be treated as temporary residents or tourists.

Third, universities would commit to ensuring that entry requirements for international students are comparable to those for domestic ones. This can be measured using the actual grades held by those who have accepted offers. And it should, in theory, be a low-cost commitment, as universities claim to be doing it already.

Fourth, universities would commit to transparency on effective entry requirements. This means publishing the distribution of actual grades held by those accepted, broken down by course and domicile, as opposed to just the advertised entry requirements. There is often a wide difference between the two. This would, additionally, be a game-changer for widening access for disadvantaged domestic students, who will see that they have a chance of admission to many institutions with lower grades than advertised.

Finally, the government should require every institution recruiting international students to provide an annual statement to the Office for Students. This should detail plans for the international student body, broken down by domicile and programme. Greater visibility into institutional recruitment is needed to reassure domestic stakeholders that international students are not crowding out domestic ones. 

Such a deal would decouple international students from the immigration debate. It would restore confidence in the idea that the two groups of students are not in competition. And it would safeguard the £42bn economic boost that overseas students bring to the UK each year, as well as other benefits. Failure to reach a settlement will risk the collapse of institutions vital to our success as a knowledge economy, and throw away one of the great calling cards the UK has post-Brexit: the appeal of its universities to global talent.

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