International students contribute an estimated £26 billion to the UK economy each year. Last week, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Students launched an inquiry, "A sustainable future for international students in the UK?" And in September, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) is due to report back on its call for evidence into the impact of international students in the UK.
The evidence is also there to show the huge contribution international students make not just to our economy but to our classrooms and communities, too.
But what about international teachers working in the UK? Or the additional teachers – wherever they are from – employed to teach programmes aimed at international students, such as English language courses? I wonder if we also need an inquiry into a sustainable future for teachers.
The Association of Colleges is proudly supporting the Tes #LetThemTeach campaign, calling for the entire teaching profession to be added to the "shortage occupation list" for UK work visas. Of course, recruiting teachers from overseas isn’t the straightforward answer to any teacher shortage in the UK. The reasons why there aren’t enough people joining the profession, or why teachers leave, should be properly addressed; after all, teachers are providing education and training for the UK’s workforce of the future. And I don’t just say that as the daughter of teachers.
The simple reason why colleges should be able to recruit teachers from overseas is because they should have the choice to do so, and on equal terms with business and other education providers, such as schools and universities. While the recruitment criteria might differ from one teaching job to another, the principle of being able to recruit should be the same.
Differentiation in the system is unhelpful. The Home Office Tier 4 student visa route does not currently allow publicly-funded international students at colleges the same work or visa renewal rights as international students at universities. Equally, very few further education and sixth-form colleges sponsor international teachers through the government’s Tier 2 work visa route, which is similar in many aspects to Tier 4 for students. Obstacles such as an annual limit on the number of visas, and minimum qualification and salary thresholds, on top of high visa fees and other charges, are probably off-putting.
A welcome change is now in sight for Tier 4 rules with the new Office for Students registration, which will place all higher education providers with good Tier 4 compliance on the same footing. Surely reasonable change is possible then for Tier 2?
At the present time, college teaching jobs don’t feature on the government’s official shortage occupation list. Yet if colleges can’t recruit the right staff, particularly in skill shortage areas, they are unable to support employers and industry, when our sector is tasked with preparing students for employment. International teachers don’t just bring the benefit of their subject knowledge to the classroom either. They bring diversity, the benefit of having lived or grown up with another culture, in another country and perhaps another language.
Even if international teachers working in our colleges have lived in the UK a long time, the fact that they have experience of somewhere else is positive for our college communities, especially colleges in areas of low social mobility or little ethnic mix. At a time when Brexit looms large, however hard or soft it turns out to be, college students deserve every opportunity to interact with people from other cultures, and to think globally.
Teaching abroad is a global industry. Thousands of qualified UK teachers work abroad in international schools, colleges and universities. My first job was teaching English in Spain. I then spent a year team-teaching in Japan, completed my teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) course at City College Manchester (now part of the Manchester College Group), my TEFL teaching practice in Croatia, and ultimately managed a large and highly regarded college English for speakers of other languages (Esol) department. Staff in the department came from different parts of the UK and abroad, and our students benefited from learning English spoken in different ways, with different accents, by their lecturers.
When England plays Croatia on Wednesday night, I’ll be texting my Croatian friends – friends made teaching overseas.
The countdown to Brexit is the right time to plan ahead and ensure the UK doesn’t experience a teacher shortage. It’s the right time to reconsider adding teaching – full stop – to the shortage occupation list, and making Tier 2 more accessible for colleges.
Emma Meredith is international director at the Association of Colleges