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Immigration policy targets universities as well as students

3rd September 2012

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Last week, London Metropolitan University (LMU) was stripped of its licence to authorise non-EU visas for international students. The verdict was made after the UK Boarder Agency (UKBA) discovered a number of international ‘bogus’ students did not meet UKBA requirements.

Concerns have been voiced that this ban will damage Britain’s image as a welcoming hub for international students, and the university sector fears that its income will be severely affected by this decision.

Vice-Chancellor of LMU Malcolm Gillies claimed that the ban would cause a loss of £30 million, nearly a fifth of the university’s budget. After the United States, Britain is the second most popular destination for international students. Official forecasts suggest that revenue for the sector could more than double to £17bn by 2025, not including the income generated off-campus.

Worries concerning international opinion couldn’t have surfaced at a worse time after countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany and France have recognised the immense income produced by international students, and are now competing to attract them.

The UK now risks the overseas perception that it is unwelcoming of international students. Lord Bilimoria, entrepreneur and founding chair of the UK Business Council, stated that Indian students had said “Britain doesn’t want us.” Some universities have noticed that applications from India have dropped by about a fifth.

Several university vice chancellors have stated that pressure has now been placed on their institutions by the UKBA to account for the whereabouts of their students almost on real-time. The UKBA has also made it much more difficult for non-European students to stay in the UK two years after graduating.

This ill-timed and grossly unfair situation has illustrated that when it comes to public policy, two contrasting ideas surface. Public opinion shows that British citizens want to cut net immigration, yet, an outcry of sympathy was also expressed by the same voice for LMU international students.

Nearly 80% of UK citizens believe that net immigration should be reduced to tens of thousands a year from a peak in 2010 of 252,000. According to the IPPR think-tank, this target would mean reducing international student numbers by about 50,000, cutting the economy of £2bn-£3bn. The government has vowed to grant the public’s wish to reduce immigration within the current parliament by restricting non-EU students from studying in the UK.

Perhaps international students shouldn’t be merged into the same category as long-term immigrants who come for work or family reasons. Student immigrants are a weak target to pick when considering that the UKBA can only justify that 20% of international students stay in the UK post-graduation. It remains a mystery whether the left-over 80% stay in the UK or return home. Former Home Office advisor Matt Cavanagh said that by trying to hit a single target of overall net migration that is “less likely to stay here,” the government is “going to do a lot of damage to the economy and university sector.”

The estimated 2,600 legitimate LMU students who are part way through their degree course now face the difficult task of finding a different institution to study at by December, or risk deportation. It is within the universities and government’s best interest to accommodate these students to try and maintain its image as a welcoming second home for international students. The government should also ask itself the fundamental question: should international students be put in the same bracket as permanent immigrants if they leave shortly after graduating? 

If the government does not change its tact and only focuses on its short-term target of attacking immigration figures, universities will have to undergo impossible regulation checks and the UK will suffer a tremendous blow from the economic damage caused by the loss of a thriving sectors.

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