27 September 2018

Much of the rhetoric surrounding Brexit concerns the concept of “global Britain” – a more outward-looking, international, and ultimately more prosperous nation, which is unlocked after leaving the EU. This concept is most often discussed in relation to striking Free Trade Agreements with non-EU nations. But there are other ways of thinking about how Britain might aim to be more global after Brexit.

One of the most significant is in relation to international students. The independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recently published a report on the impact of international students in the UK. While the UK remains the second most popular destination for international students in the world, its share of the market has declined slightly in recent years. As such, the report provides a number of recommendations on how the UK can remain a global competitor in higher education after we leave the EU.


Recommendations by the MAC

The report is mostly framed around non-EEA students, who require a Tier 4 study visa and who pay higher fees than domestic students. Students from the EEA currently do not require a visa and pay the same fees as domestic students. Given the government’s determination to end free movement of people, however, it is possible that EEA students will in time come to have the same fees and visa obligations as non-EEA students. As such, while the report offers policy recommendations on non-EEA students, these may also eventually affect EEA students.

The report recognises the clear economic benefits of international students to the UK. Non-EEA students pay higher fees and therefore cross-subsidise the studies of domestic students, along with funding university research by up to £8,000 over the course of one degree. Added to this are living expenses and expenditure by visiting friends and family, all of which make higher education a highly valuable UK export. The report also finds that they are a low burden on the NHS, and that there is no evidence that they have a negative impact upon local communities.

However, the report’s policy recommendations are somewhat modest. Currently, students on Tier 4 visas are able to apply for a Tier 2 work visa after finishing their degrees, but they must already have a job offer and meet a minimum salary requirement. They have a four-month window after their degree in which to obtain the visa. Master’s students have an automatic right to work for four months after finishing, while PhD students can apply for a 12-month work permit.

The report recommends only slightly liberalising this post-study work regime. PhD students should be given the automatic right to remain in the country for a year after finishing; Master’s students should be allowed to work for six months rather than four; and there would be greater leeway for applicants on Tier 4 visas to apply for Tier 2 visas. Currently the Tier 2 application has to be completed inside the UK; the report recommends scrapping this rule. 


How and why the government should go further

Even if the UK followed exactly the recommendations of the MAC report, it would still have one of the most restrictive post-study work regimes among both English-speaking and European countries. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all have post-graduation work visas, without minimum salary requirements, lasting anywhere from one to four years. Germany, France, and Ireland offer temporary residence permits for non-EEA students for the purpose of finding permanent employment.

There is much evidence that the more conservative UK policy is an obstacle to growth in the higher education sector. For example, the share of Indian students choosing to study in the UK has fallen by 11 percentage points since 2010, while an increasing proportion of those students have chosen to enrol in Australia. This has directly coincided with stricter UK immigration policy in this period, as well as the simultaneous development of greater post-study work options in Australia.

The government should go beyond the MAC report and establish a more expansive post-study work regime, one which allows for greater flexibility regarding residence permits and salary requirements. This would make the UK a more attractive destination for international students, and allow its universities to continue to compete with the rest of the world.

There are a number of reasons why the government should be more proactive in attracting international students. As already noted, they have obvious economic benefits. In addition, a 2013 government study found that many international students form a highly positive view of the UK when studying here, an attitude that is taken back to countries of origin. This attitude subsequently helps to inspire educational and research exchanges, trade agreements, diplomacy, and developmental relationships between the UK and other countries.

Polls suggest, moreover, that the British public are generally supportive of foreign students. A 2017 ComRes poll found that only 26% of respondents thought that an international student coming to study in the UK qualified as an “immigrant”. In addition, Open Europe’s recent study of attitudes among both Leave and Remain voters towards immigration reveals net public support of 21% for foreign students coming to the UK. All of these studies suggest, therefore, that the British public are cognisant of the benefits they bring.

Higher education is already Britain’s strength, but international market share is being lost amidst Brexit uncertainty and tighter visa requirements. Evidence of the range of benefits brought by international students should inspire the government to think carefully about its policy on the issue. It might ask whether the recommendations in the MAC report really go far enough – and whether a more lenient post-study work regime might better reflect the global, outward-looking Britain that it wishes to pursue.