The FE sector has hit out at a “woefully insufficient” report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of international students in the UK.
The report, published yesterday, recommends that there should continue to be no cap on the number of students gaining a Tier 4 visa to study in the UK, and also states there is “scope to grow the number of international students within the UK”.
However, it stops short of echoing calls by many in the sector for students to be removed from the government’s net migration target. It also does not recommend the introduction of a post-study work visa, called for by both the college and universities sector.
'No significant change'
Emma Meredith, international director at the Association of Colleges, said the MAC report produces valuable and vital insights but “largely draws a blank for the college sector”. “The report usefully highlights the important contribution that international students make to the UK, not only the economic benefits, but also evidence to counter perceptions that international students overstay or place demand on public resources or on their local communities," she said.
“However, the report proposes no significant change; it reinforces the policy status quo for colleges. International students remain within net migration targets and college international students remain without the right to work part-time. We agree with the MAC that the work rules for UK FE students are more restrictive than in systems in other countries.”
The National Union of Students’ international students’ officer, Yinbo Yu, said the report was “at best, woefully insufficient to meet the challenges facing UK higher education in an increasingly competitive global market”.
He added: “At its worst, it represents a failure to act on the evidence presented to the committee, from NUS and others within the sector, demonstrating the immeasurable social and economic benefits that international students bring.”
“The report calls for a growth in the number of students coming to study in the UK. However, it is also unwilling to acknowledge that the immigration system, as it stands, acts as an obstacle for some, and a deterrent for many.
"Particularly perplexing is the suggestion that, despite calls from across the sector to the contrary, international students should remain within net migrant targets after all. Without significant reform to the system, the possibility of expansion is an improbability – and will remain little more than a pie-in-the-sky aspiration...This will do little, if nothing at all, to help the UK compete with the superior offer in other countries.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, agreed that it was “disappointing that the committee does not recommend the implementation of post-study work visas to allow qualified students who have completed a further and higher education course to stay in Scotland to work, as their talents would enhance our society and economy”.
“The college sector has the potential to contribute to the international agenda and induce benefits to the Scottish economy through inward investment from overseas and by providing opportunities for global learning, innovation, and connectivity,” she added.
However, Matthew Percival, the CBI's head of employment, said making it easier to switch to work visas after their studies will help the UK to increase its market share of international students amid fierce competition. “And business agrees with the report that removing international students from the net migration target is no panacea – the target should be scrapped altogether and replaced with a system that prioritises people’s contribution,” he added.
Disappointment for the sector
The report states: “We know that the sector will be disappointed by our recommendations on post-study work, but demand for UK education should not be based on work rights. If students had unrestricted rights to work in the UK for two years after graduation, there would potentially be demand for degrees (especially short master’s degrees) based not just on the value of the qualification and the opportunity to obtain a graduate-level job and settle in the UK, but for the temporary right to work in the UK that studying brings. A post-study work regime could become a pre-work study regime."
It also states that “removing students from the net migration target would be difficult technically and, if done correctly, would make almost no difference to the net migration figures”. “Many in the sector expressed concern that inclusion in the target contributed to an image of the UK as unwelcoming for international students. If there is such a problem, we think it more likely comes from the existence of the target itself than the inclusion of students in that target," the report adds.
“To help smooth the recruitment process and provide assurances to international students and potential employers, we would recommend tweaks to the policy on switching from a Tier 4 to a Tier 2 visa.”
The MAC's recommendations
1. To retain no cap on the numbers of international students.
2. Government and the sector should continue to work together to grow the number of international students.
3. International students should not be removed from the net migration statistics.
4. Rules on working while studying and dependent rights should remain unchanged.
5. Widening the window in which applications for switches from Tier 4 to Tier 2 can be made.
6. Post-study leave period extended to six months for master’s students.
7. The 12 months leave to remain after PhD completion to be incorporated into the original visa duration.
8. Previous Tier 4 students, who passed their level 6 (or above) qualification in the UK, should be entitled to a two-year period during which they can apply out-of-country for a Tier 2 visa, under the same rules as current in-country Tier 4 to Tier 2 switches.