Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

The illogical war on international students

Despite the government’s best efforts, international students still want to study in the UK

Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire - Credit: PA

For the second year running, according to new data from Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (Ucas), the number applying to study undergraduate degrees at UK universities has risen.

Some 115,730 students from outside the UK applied to start next September, up from 114,910 in the previous year. Meanwhile, last December, the Centre for Migration Control (CMC) found a total of 787,000 international students had studied in UK universities during the academic year 2022/2023.

The government’s new student migration policy came into effect on January 1. First rolled out last May by then-home secretary Suella Braverman in a hurried attempt to distract from growing attention over her conduct in office, the plans block international students from bringing their families to the UK. 

Industry experts warned that this would be a damaging move to deter foreign students from studying in the UK, despite them being the highest source of income to universities and the best performers in STEM fields. Ewan Kirk, a Cambridge University entrepreneur-in-residence and a director of the engineering giant BAE Systems, was among them. 

“You only have to look at the psychodrama around the Rwanda policy, which we all know is a distraction mechanism. They are making a massive noise about a policy that even James Cleverly described as a batshit idea. And it is a batshit idea,” Kirks explains. 

Last June, he claimed the government’s policy on skilled migration was in keeping with one “terrified of migration”. But for Kirk, it’s No 10’s attitude toward student migration and its effect on Britain’s universities and, specifically, the STEM industries previously favoured by new graduates that is most concerning.

While this is not reflected in Ucas’s data, most international students in the UK are here for postgraduate courses, including master’s degrees. The Higher Education Statistics Agency, which represents both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, suggests the number of international student enrolments grew from 469,160 in the 2017-18 academic year to 679,970 in 2021-22.

“There’s this sort of vision that these applicants are 18-year-olds doing sociology degrees. That’s certainly not true,” Kirk says. “If we want to attract people who are right at the peak of their field, doing master’s and PhDs and maybe post-doctorates, those people are not your typical 18-year-olds. They’ll be in their 20s and probably have a partner and roots where they live. A policy blocking students from bringing family members, therefore, makes it really hard for them to come.”

Britain, Kirk explains, has cohort after cohort of “young, bright, smart driven people” willing to spend three years in the country to complete their education. “But what’s the government’s response,” Kirk asks, “to these people who have already spent hundreds of thousands in our economy and supported our higher education system? After we’ve trained you up to be a brilliant mathematician, engineer, or scientist, we say to them ‘go’. On any level, that is nuts.”

Kirk is referring to the graduate work visa which, despite only existing for two years, is now”‘under review”. As international students contributed £41.9 billion to the UK economy in 2022, this is giving experts cause for concern. 

“It just sends this message that we don’t want these individuals here both in the short term and the long term. The Tories are doing this for ideological reasons but in pragmatic terms, it’s stupid,” he says. “Thirty years ago, it used to be the case that Labour was given a hard time for placing ideology over pragmatic answers and the Tories were the proper pragmatists. Now, there are no pragmatic solutions.” Kirk is among other industry experts who have expressed concern that the review’s conclusion must not threaten the visa’s existence.

Unsurprisingly, at the next election, Kirk is supporting Labour. Worth £225 million, he donated £300,000 to the Liberal Democrats in 2019, having previously told Spears he was “pretty happy” with Tony Blair’s politics, and “reasonably happy” with David Cameron’s. “In 2019, I had the choice of a bloviating narcissist spouting on about levelling up, without any real plans… and an ageing out-of-touch Marxist. None of those worked. And the Liberal Democrats were the only sane party,” he told the trade publication.

For Kirk, addressing the issues around existing migration policies must be a priority for the next government and a commitment from Labour to rejoin Erasmus, the exchange scheme that Britain left as part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal which allowed British students to study in Europe and vice-versa, should be part of its manifesto.

Erasmus, he concedes, was far from perfect. “But, the reason it was great was that it attracted people out of great universities around Europe, to Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London or Glasgow, for example. We don’t need Rishi Sunak to say: ‘Let’s become a scientific powerhouse’. We already were,” he sighs. 

But while rejoining the scheme could be an “easy victory” for Labour, Kirk remains hesitant. “From the contact I have had with people within the Labour Party, they are aware there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed. Only I very much doubt that Keir Starmer would want to open that particular can of worms right now,” Kirk explains.

Alyn Smith, shadow SNP spokesperson for Europe and EU ascension, meanwhile, is growing tired of the “verbal omerta” on the subject. While he believes a commitment from Keir Stamer that a Labour government would seek to rejoin Erasmus would be a “vote winner” for younger generations, Smith has little interest in rhetoric that fails to be reflected in reality. “We can’t scare the Brexit-shaped horses and I understand that. However, it’s time Labour got real,” he says.

At the end of last year, London mayor Sadiq Khan signed the Young European Movement’s petition calling for the government to rejoin Erasmus, insisting that “London is, and always will be a European city”. This came after several bouts of coded and not-so-coded messages directed at the Labour leader over his silence on Brexit and so, even if Starmer does find himself in No 10, Smith doubts such a policy would come to fruition.

In 2021, the government launched the Turing Scheme, a £110m study and travel programme created as a replacement for Erasmus. It was “put together out of the government’s need to create something”, Smith says, and the result was a programme plagued with flaws. 

Not only have university administrators cited its complex application process, but the scheme, in its most glaring difference to Erasmus, does not cover tuition fees. There is, instead, an assumption that host universities will waive these costs leaving many UK universities with no choice but to establish their own arrangements. 

“This leaves everyone having to reinvent the wheel,” sighs Smith, adding that it also creates a demographic bias towards wealthier students. “Turing is not as socially progressive. Erasmus had a wider remit.” 

In the government’s first official analysis of the programme, 79% of higher education providers cited problems with its application process, funding and delivery. According to Mike Galsworthy, chair of European Movement UK, the government are, only now, catching up with the reality that “the Turing Scheme is not an adequate substitution for the Erasmus programme.”

The programme is also not reciprocal, meaning that the economic and societal benefits European students brought to UK university campuses and cities have been lost. Since the UK left the bloc, the number of EU students enrolling in British universities decreased by over half, with the biggest decline seen at the undergraduate level. 

Just 13,155 EU students enrolled in 2021 for the first year of a primary degree compared with 37,530 the year before, according to official data. “The Turing Scheme was set up to fail,” says Smith and offering it up to students as an adequate replacement for Erasmus is “cruel”. 

The news that UK universities are retaining their shine to international students also arrives after a report by the Today programme which revealed entry requirements were being lowered for them by the University of York, a Russell Group University. Some overseas students will now be accepted at the equivalent of BBC at A-Level, where, in contrast, most domestic students received offers between the ranges of A*AA to BBB. 

According to the Financial Times, academics at Hull were informed of the decision via email. It read: “In response to the current financial challenges, the university has decided to lower its tariff for all departments and programmes for overseas applicants.”

This makes financial sense, if nothing else – international students pay higher fees than their British counterparts. Yet, the university maintains standards have not slipped. “The change in ‘tariff’ refers to a more flexible approach we are adopting to international offer holders who miss their grades. We already take a flexible approach for home students after we receive their results,” a University of York spokesperson told me.

Back on campus, students have been discussing the decision. “My only concern would be that the academic calibre and integrity of our university is being compromised for the sake of fiscality,” one undergraduate said.

Their fears are not unfounded. With 2023 marking its lowest funding point since 2011, according to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, universities are in a bleak state. Today, university students are seeing less spent on their education than at any other point since fees were tripled in 2012. 

By the end of this year, the think tank estimates that the real-term value of spending per student will have dropped to the levels of 2011 when tuition fees were just £3,375 per year and there was far more governmental help on offer for teaching grants. These calculations explain why universities have seen a series of staff redundancies and cutbacks. The latest is Oxford Brookes, which announced the shutting down of its maths and music courses while applying cuts to other degree subjects. 

But what remains unanswered is Kirk and Smith’s question: just why is the government afraid of student migration?

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.