Student visa plans could 'cripple' UK education
An all-party committee of MPs has urged Immigration Minister Damian Green not to go ahead with a series of changes to the student visa system, warning of "potentially calamitous" consequences to an industry worth £40bn a year.
Members of the home affairs select committee today "caution against measures which could be detrimental to a thriving, successful industry" that is "not only economically beneficial to this country but also vital to the UK's international relations".
The committee report amounts to a scathing critique of government plans to try and reduce net immigration by introducing new controls on students applying to study in the UK. The MPs complain of "a policy based on flawed evidence" and urge ministers to rethink proposals that "could cripple the UK education sector".
The government is determined to reduce net migration to the UK from its current level of around 200,000 a year down to tens of thousands. However, since taking office, net immigration has increased, largely because many more students from outside the EU are coming to British colleges, language schools and universities.
Immigration Minister Damian Green told Parliament in January that "taking action on students is particularly important as they make up roughly two thirds of non-European economic area immigrants, and the number of student visas issued has been rising in recent years". However, a few weeks later he told the Commons: "We want to encourage all those genuine students coming here to study at our world-class academic institutions."
This apparent contradiction has led the select committee to accuse the government of "a lack of clarity" over whether the aim was to cap foreign student numbers or simply target "bogus" students and colleges. The prime minister has stated that "we are not currently looking at limits on tier four (student) immigration visas" but the MPs' report expresses concern at "the potential to create significant unintended consequences".
The anxiety is that Britain might lose out on billions of pounds in income from foreign students if it does not appear to be as welcoming as other countries. "UK universities are facing aggressive competition in a market which is vital for their future and for the UK economy", the MPs say, adding that they had already "heard evidence that Australia were launching an aggressive marketing campaign in order to increase their share of the international education market at the expense of the UK".
The committee report states that "the international student market is estimated to be worth £40 billion to the UK economy" and warns that "given the experiences of the USA and Australia", who lost trade after they tightened their student visa systems, "it would be wise for the UK to bear this very much in mind".
Chairman of the committee, Keith Vaz MP, is suggesting the government takes students out of the net migration figures, thus removing the educational sector from ministers' concerns over numbers:
"Students are not migrants. They come from all over the world to study here, contributing to the economy both through payment of fees and wider spending. Whilst we are right to seek to eliminate bogus colleges and bogus students, we need to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and the best... if the door is shut they will simply study elsewhere."
The MPs "strongly recommend" that the government does not demand higher English language qualifications for students applying to a college with "highly trusted" status. They also urge that the post study work route whereby students who finish their course can take a job in the UK "be maintained".
Indeed, they question whether there is a significant problem of bogus students looking to abuse immigration rules.
The information government uses to justify tightening student visa rules "does not in itself prove endemic abuse of the system", the committee says. Mr Vaz argues that "generating policy based on flawed evidence could cripple the UK education sector. In the case of international students this could mean a significant revenue and reputational loss to the UK."
One area where government has expressed specific ambition to act is on students who come to the UK to take "sub-degree" courses at English language schools. You may recall my post on this subject which quoted Damian Green telling journalists how he had "discovered" that half of those who come to Britain to study "do not fit with everyone's image of the hard-working student in higher education".
The committee, however, estimates that the foreign students coming to learn English "contribute roughly £1.5 billion to the economy and are estimated to be responsible for 30,000 jobs".
"It is a sector which boosts tourism and provides a vital route for international students to achieve necessary language skills for UK degree courses" they say. "Witnesses repeatedly stressed to us the importance of pathway programmes to UK universities and all of them cited the increase of the required language level as a proposal which could significantly damage the recruitment of international students."
Today's all-party report is clanging alarm bells, sounding klaxons and rattling cages for all it is worth. The MPs accept the need to keep immigration under control and take steps to prevent abuse. But, after reading their document, one is left with the powerful impression that this group of senior parliamentarians fears the government may be about to endanger a key driver of economic growth and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.