Need for a more coherent approach across government and agencies

Tightened Visa policy harming Higher Education


According to a new report from Wild ReSearch the value of UK education exports was estimated to be £14.1 billion in 2008 – 9. This value is predicted to grow annually by about 4 per cent in real terms, so it would be worth about £21.5 billion in 2020 and £26.6 billion in 2025 (both in 2008/9 prices).

However, the report says that the  value of education as an export from the UK needs to be much more fully recognised by the government and a coherent joined up  approach across departments and agencies developed to support and promote UK Education . It adds that  the tightening up of  student visas needs to be sorted out. It says ‘ It is unwise to have such strong restrictions placed upon those we seek to encourage into the country. Alongside this, reputation management is of great importance; it must be ensured that the strong British brand of world class education is maintained. Any dilution of the standard of education will be noted by international students and trade will be taken elsewhere’.  The export value of higher education specifically makes up a large share of this, worth £7.9 billion annually. (although there has been considerable growth in recent years in UK based independent schools setting up abroad  and in  UK education service providers winning business providing, for example, advice and support on qualifications, English language teaching, teacher training, quality assurance,  the curriculum, school inspections and school and system-wide improvement)

Most of the current support for exporters  through UKTI is focused on education equipment supply. The British Councils role is regarded as controversial. As a subsidised quango it is tasked with promoting British culture and education abroad yet competes  directly with other UK companies abroad  while purporting to represent  their interests. Given the degree of  distrust of the British Council and the conflict of interests inherent in its role and practice, the reports recommendation that the  British Council (and UK Trade and Investment )needs to ensure  that it is  doing all it  can to support  education looks naïve . Though a more focused  sector support role from UKTI would almost certainly be welcomed ,  the same could not be said  for  giving a greater role to  the British Council.   Indeed, if anything,  most UK education service providers would want some restrictions placed on the BC and its anti-competitive practices. Nobody believes that the BC is competitively neutral. Nor should they.

On Higher Education, which is the main focus of this report, it says that  there is a real danger today that  ‘many international students are given the impression that the UK is closed for business as the Home Office has tightened up student visa policy. It is often appears that the Government is seeking short-term political gain rather than focussing on the long term growth plan.’

There are signs too that the UK’s share of the international student market is beginning to  shrink even though all of its leading competitors, the other Anglophone countries, the USA, Canada and Australia, have retained theirs. With 20 per cent, the USA has the largest market share.

The report seeks ,importantly, to  dispel one big myth- that foreign students are taking the places of UK students.  Contrary to public perception, international students do not take home students’ spaces at university; indeed, they are vital for keeping certain university courses running, especially STEM subjects and post-graduate courses. This is what the Home Affairs Select Committee had to say about it:

“International students … pay more than UK students for their courses and, in effect, subsidise the educational system in the UK – under current arrangements the average fee for a non EEA student was £8,600 in comparison to £2,200 for an EEA student and the Independent Migration Advisory Committee found that international students contribute 37% of the total university income from fees. Most universities are educational charities and therefore any surplus in income is usually invested in improving facilities and increasing the size or pay of the work force.”

A survey across eleven countries was carried out by the Institute of International Education (IIE) with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Education USA between 2009 and 2010 which received over 9,000 valid responses. The results of the survey suggest that “over two thirds (69%) of respondents worldwide felt that the United States welcomes international students, as compared with 42 per cent for Canada, 34 per cent for Australia, and 33 per cent for the United Kingdom.”

The report warns that New visa rules mean the UK’s top universities and schools are in danger of losing their appeal to foreign students. Indded this appears already to be happening. It says planned government changes to student visas risk deterring legitimate students. And it warns that students who may once have come to the UK could opt for the US. Australia  or Canada instead.

The recent changes restrict postgraduate employment in the UK to those with a top degree and a job with an accredited employer paying over £20,000 a year.

Details of the plans were announced last week by Immigration Minister Damian Green.

“It is vital that we continue to attract the brightest and the best international students but we have to be more selective about who can come here and how long they can stay,” said Mr Green.

Most education exporters would agree with the leading recommendation of this report  ie

‘The UK government should reassess the full impact of all policies related to the export of education to ensure the potential for economic growth is optimal. The key departments here are BIS, DfE, FCO, the Home Office and UKTI’

One would only add that the DFID, seeking to bring education to the most disadvantaged in the developing world, should also be included. The private sector in education  does have a role in bringing education to the poorest communities abroad.

It also has some positive suggestions on the Visa issue ie to make the visa process easier for valid international students

i. Retain the post-study work visa

ii. The Government should produce additional statistics showing separately the number of students entering the country as well as permanent migration. This would be more transparent as any reduction in student numbers does not represent a reduction in permanent migration. This would then ensure that the pressure to curb immigration does not result in a clampdown on international students

iii. Ensure the application process for international students is as straightforward as possible

iv. Leave it to highly trusted institutions to decide on language requirements

v. Ensure that bogus institutions receive the strongest penalties.

It also suggests the formation of an all- party parliamentary group for education providers which could help bring a clearer focus on the policy front. What might also help is for education providers themselves to set up a sector specific group to identify issues of common concern and to help articulate industry concerns and seek action  in an area where we should have a competitive advantage but are under  increasing threat from competitors. What is clear is that the Government is not currently doing nearly  enough to support our education exporters across a broad range of services.  And it isn’t just about resources-what resources we have could be much better targeted.

Graham Able and Fraser White; WILD ReSEARCH; Education: A Great British Export? Feb 2011

Note Graham Able is a former Headmaster of Dulwich College and is Chief Executive of Alpha Plus. Fraser White is a Lawyer who funded  the report and is chief executive of Shanghai-based Dulwich College Management International (DCMI). DCMI runs a number of British-style schools in East Asia.

For copies of the report- contact Edward Wild


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