UK Universities Warn Reducing International Students Could Harm Economy

UK universities warn that reducing international students would harm the economy, skills, and jobs. A government review of the graduate visa route, which allows overseas graduates to stay in the UK, has sparked concerns among university leaders and businesses.

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Aqsa Younas Rana
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UK Universities Warn Reducing International Students Could Harm Economy

UK Universities Warn Reducing International Students Could Harm Economy

Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, President of Universities UK (UUK) and Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews, has warned that reducing the number of international students coming to the UK would be "calamitous" and harm the economy, skills, and jobs. Her comments come amidst a government review of the graduate visa route, which allows overseas graduates to stay in the UK for two or three years after graduation.

Why this matters: The UK's ability to attract and retain top international talent has significant implications for its economy, research, and innovation. Reducing international student numbers could lead to a decline in the UK's competitiveness in the global economy and hinder its ability to address key challenges.

The review, ordered by Home Secretary James Cleverly in March 2024, aims to assess whether the route is supporting the UK in attracting and retaining the brightest and best, and to ensure it is not being abused. However, university leaders have expressed concerns that restricting the graduate visa route could lead to a decline in international student numbers, resulting in reduced investment in research and development (R&D).

Former Universities Minister Lord Jo Johnson has also spoken out against potential cuts to international student numbers, calling the idea "self-defeating". "Slashing the graduate route would set back so many important Government policy priorities: Global Britain, levelling up, exports, science superpower," he said. "It's hard to think of a policy more self-defeating and all for what? To lower immigration stats which international students shouldn't be part of anyway."

The UK's higher education sector is the second largest investor in research, spending £5.6 billion in 2021. Reducing international students could lead to a decline in the UK's research power and damage the wider economy. Seventeen leaders from Chambers of Commerce and business networks have written to the Chancellor to warn against restricting or scrapping the graduate visa route.

"Universities of all shapes and sizes will need to make difficult choices about where to invest diminishing resources... This will mean further cuts to staffing, courses and research investment," said Vivienne Stern, Chief Executive of Universities UK. Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Greenwich and Chair of University Alliance, warned that "the government would need to find ways of covering the significant losses to research funding and wider export income caused by declining international student numbers. This would be an extraordinary economic own goal."

The graduate route visa, introduced in July 2021, allows international students to work in the UK for two years after completing their studies without sponsorship or a work permit. India is the largest source of Graduate route participants, with Indian students issued 1.20 lakh student visas in 2023, a 250% increase from 2019. However, Home Secretary James Cleverly has raised concerns that only 32% of international graduates switching into work routes earned a salary above the general threshold, with just 16% earning over £30,000.

The potential discontinuation of the post-study work visa could have a far-reaching impact on international students, particularly from India, who may not be able to stay in the UK after completing their studies. The Migration Advisory Committee is set to publish a report on the UK's post-study work visa by May 14, 2024, which could impact the future of the graduate visa route and the UK's ability to attract top international talent to its universities and workforce.

Key Takeaways

  • Reducing international students in the UK could harm the economy, skills, and jobs.
  • UK universities spend £5.6 billion on research, which could decline with fewer international students.
  • Restricting graduate visas could lead to a decline in the UK's competitiveness in the global economy.
  • 17 business leaders warn that restricting graduate visas would be an "economic own goal."
  • A report on the UK's post-study work visa is due on May 14, 2024, which could impact international students.