International students are a particularly topical issue within higher education at the moment. With the General Election almost upon us, there is a welcome opportunity to reflect on the significance of the issue, and the changes that a new government might introduce.

What’s happened during the last Parliament?

The UK has traditionally attracted high numbers of international students to study at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. However there was a notable decline of postgraduate students in 2013/2014. Recent analysis from HEFCE reveals that while demand has partially rebounded, growth remains low, particularly in comparison to English-speaking ‘competitor’ countries.

Possible explanations include less favourable exchange rates and more successful recruitment strategies being employed in competitor countries. For example, Germany and Australia have both set out explicit strategies to grow their share of the international student market.

Policy developments in the UK are also a likely cause. A parliamentary committee report debated recently in the House of Lords emphasised that perceptions of the UK’s immigration rules, in addition to their complexity and instability, deter potential international students.

The post-study work route

Much of the political debate has focused on the inclusion of students in net migration figures, but the closure of the post-study work visa route may be a more significant issue. This means that international students who study in the UK but don’t find an appropriate job within 4 months of graduating must leave. The previous route enabled graduates to remain in the UK for up to 2 years to find skilled work and apply for a mainstream work visa, but it was abolished in 2012 as part of a series of reforms to increase governmental control of immigration.

In the international context, post-study work opportunities are seen as a key part of the offer to mobile students. The current 4 month timescale is shorter than any other English-speaking or EU ‘competitor’ country, such as Australia, the USA or Germany.

The closure of the UK’s post-study route has been heavily criticised by the university sector, businesses, and politicians in both Westminster and Holyrood. It is argued that the closure has resulted in the loss of highly valued and skilled graduates who have been trained in the UK and would otherwise have stayed and contributed to the UK’s economy. Moreover it is seen to have reduced the attractiveness of the UK as a destination to study in, acting as a deterrent to potential international students.

Indeed the All Parliamentary Group on Migration’s latest report found that “reform of the UK’s post-study work opportunities in 2012 appears to have contributed towards significant shifts in international student flows to the UK”.

Reinstating the route has been a key recommendation in the reports mentioned above, and is one of three demands in Universities UK’s international students campaign.

The case for international students

Earlier this year the Royal Society and our sister Academies published a joint election statement setting out the priorities needed for research, development and innovation in the UK. It calls for a flexible and diverse workforce in order to meet demand for research skills, and specifically for the removal of unnecessary barriers to the flow of talented people.

It is clear that international students could help address the widely acknowledged skills shortage in the UK, which is described in reports ranging from the CBI’s 2014 survey of employment trends, to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s The Universe of Engineering. International students also bring direct economic benefits.

Infographic showing the economic impact of international students

The economic impact of international students (EU and non-EU). Credit: Universities UK

International students are an important part of the UK’s higher education ecosystem. For science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, a recent decline in international students at the postgraduate level is particularly concerning: the viability of some taught programmes may be at risk, as the number of home students may not be sufficient for universities to continue to run the courses.

A poll carried out on behalf of Universities UK explored public perception of international students. It found that even participants who held quite negative attitudes towards immigrants were broadly positive about international students. However, as our blog post on immigration policy outlines, public misperceptions about immigration persist.

A recent HEPI survey also explored perceptions of international students, but from the perspective of higher education applicants. It revealed that applicants were positively attracted by the prospect of studying alongside international peers, recognising benefits such as useful preparation for working in a global environment.

In summary, as the Science & Technology Select Committee’s report states:

“Attracting able STEM students from overseas is of vital importance to UK HEIs, domestic students and UK plc. International students enrich the experience of domestic students, can provide skills needed for the growth and future of the UK economy and (…) contribute very significantly to university finances.”

What can we expect in the future?

Given the controversial nature of the immigration debate in England, it is unsurprising that the main political parties have avoided discussing international students during the election campaign.

As mentioned in our recent blog post on research and innovation manifesto commitments, international students do briefly feature in all of the major English parties’ manifestos, although the emphasis varies.

The Conservatives and Labour have both pledged to tighten the student visa system. The Conservatives will focus on tackling abuse, reducing the numbers overstaying once their visas expire, reviewing the ‘highly trusted sponsor system’, and clamping down on ‘satellite’ campuses. Labour emphasise that they would aim to prevent abuse of the short-term student visa system, but also highlight that overseas students, “who bring billions into Britain”, will be welcomed.

The Liberal Democrats promise to “ensure the UK is an attractive destination for overseas students”, and will extend the post-study work offer “for STEM graduates who can find graduate-level employment within 6 months of completing their degree”.

However it is in Scotland where the issue has had the most prominence. The Post-Study Working Group was established at the request of the Scottish Government in 2014. Its report in March of this year strongly recommended a more attractive post-study work offer for the benefit of Scottish higher education, economic growth and business development. Following this, the SNP has pledged:

“as a priority, we will seek the reintroduction of the post study work visa, so that those we have helped educate are able, if they so choose, to make a contribution to our economy”.

Whatever the outcome of the election, concerted action will be needed if policy and perceptions at home and abroad are to be altered. As the Society’s joint election statement argues, we need “clear messages and policies to counter the claim that the UK is closed for business”.