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'Our doors must be open to international students'

The Migration Advisory Committee missed a great opportunity to send a message across the world, writes Julia Belgutay

Removing international students from migration targets would have been a positive step, says Julia Belgutay

The Migration Advisory Committee missed a great opportunity to send a message across the world, writes Julia Belgutay

It is not often in political discourse that there is an opportunity to send a strong signal beyond the borders of the UK; one that can helpto define the country we currently live in and how it will develop in future. And all of that without an upfront commitment of millions in funding. The Migration Advisory Committee’s report on the impact of international students was one such opportunity.

In my view, it was an opportunity that was completely missed. Given the option of recommending that students should be removed from the government’s migration targets, the committee did no such thing. And only weeks after university sector organisations, supported by the college sector, called for the introduction of a post-study work visa, they didn’t recommend that, either.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the committee’s report proposes barely any changes to the status quo at all. It recommends that there should continue to be no cap on international student numbers, and, in fact, says there might be scope for growth in the area. It also says there “should continue to be no cap on the number of Tier 4 to Tier 2 switches, and an exclusion from the resident labour market test, and the exclusion from the Immigration Skills Charge”.

Uncertainty for international students

And on the matter of EU students, who face significant uncertainty post-Brexit, the report says that it “seems very likely that EU citizens will not require a visa when coming to the UK for a short period as is the case for some non-EU countries at the moment. Following a short course of study in that visit would then not require a student visa. Longer periods of study might require a student visa and this means bureaucracy and cost which can only deter students from coming to the UK. This would make it harder for the sector to thrive but not impossible – in our main competitor countries almost all international students require a visa.” Oh well, good.

“On post-study work, EU students would most likely be brought within whatever system is in place for non-EU students.” I am glad we cleared that up.  

And, on post-study work, my favourite line: “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.” Tweaks.

The 'cliff edge of Brexit'

Don’t get me wrong – I have read my fair number of unconvincing committee reports. I rarely expect them to set the heather alight. But this matters. The message this country sends to the students it apparently welcomes to this country, and to the institutions it is encouraging to recruit them (and, frankly, many now increasingly look to this to help supplement their budget), has rarely been as important as it is right now, as we head to the perceived cliff edge that is Brexit.

Securing a place to study as an international student is complicated and expensive. And yet, every year international students come to the UK in their thousands. And it is reasonably universally accepted that this is a good thing. One might argue, even, that the international dimension of the further and higher education system in Britain is one of its best features.

But still, over the past few years, we have tried our best to make it harder. Tightened visa rules, making it harder for institutions to recruit international students, strict rules around working both during and after one’s studies…. And then a Brexit vote that has, in the views of many, sent a signal that this country is not one where foreigners are welcome.

The UK’s reputation, particularly in terms of the quality of education, will mean students will continue to come. Nothing much will change after this report. But is that enough? Is that really the best we can do? If we really mean it when we say we value the contribution of international students, not just economically but also in terms of the cultural insights and perspectives they bring, should we not try our hardest to make sure our doors are wide open?

'It could not have been easier'

Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I was welcomed to the UK by a small committee from the institution I was about to start studying at, and promptly equipped with little colour-coordinated cable ties for my wrist and my suitcase to make sure neither I nor it could get lost on the pre-arranged bus journey to campus. It could literally not have been easier. But my arrival was, of course, also made straightforward by the fact that, thanks to my EU citizenship, there were no hoops to jump through, no forms to fill in and no mile-long queues to stand in. I might have come from abroad, but, for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t an immigrant.

Students come here to study. In fact, the committee remarks on the fact that compliance with Tier 4 visa rules is high, and most leave after their visa expires. Is it not time we valued them as the great asset they are to the UK’s education system – and society as a whole? And time we made it easier for colleges and universities to recruit, support and nurture them?

Julia Belgutay is an FE reporter at Tes

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