Former universities minister Lord Jo Johnson has acknowledged that international students have become “collateral damage” in the UK’s recent net migration row.
At a keynote address delivered during UUK and IDP’s International Student Recruitment Conference, Johnson stressed that despite the good work of sector champions like Sir Steve Smith, it’s clear to him that “the days of government support for further growth are over.”
“It was striking that [home secretary Suella Braverman’s] May statement spoke of the target of 600,000 in [the International Education] 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,” Johnson warned.
In May, home secretary Braverman announced stringent curbs on overseas students, banning those on master’s taught courses from bringing dependents.
Johnson said the government “sensibly” closed the loophole allowing students to switch onto a skilled worker visa just months into their course, and that it was “surprising to many in this debate” that it was possible in the first place.
Crucially, he suggested that fraudulent applications were in dire need of being cut swiftly – and suggested an application fee be put in place, as “higher application fees” have proven to improve enrolment conversion rates.
“[We should] require that tuition fees be paid upfront, not least to weed out those who plan to drop out,” Johnson even suggested.
And he said greater accountability was needed of recruitment agents, suggesting the Office for Students maintain a register with KPIs in place.
He warned delegates that low drop out rates from China simply “paper over” worrying drop out rates from India and Bangladesh, “approaching 25%” – “this is entirely unacceptable and damaging to the reputation of the system”.
While Johnson also took the opportunity to remind delegates of the fact that many students arrive under-financed to the UK, he also highlighted the growing issue of some international students having to use food banks.
“I am conscious that there is much to lose from further crackdowns”
He offered the sector a point of argument to help their case against the rising rhetoric that international students are “displacing” domestic students.
“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 one the sector needs to highlight to land this argument effectively,” he noted.
Johnson also noted the “striking absence” of an effective record of international student recruitment by universities in the UK. Other sector stalwarts have noted the need for more data on international students and graduates in recent times.
“As a strong advocate for international students in our system, I am conscious that there is much to lose from further crackdowns.
“If [these ideas] 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,” Johnson concluded.
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