Nothing says ‘declining international influence’ like heralding a deal to export pig semen and trotters as ‘doing all we can to ensure that businesses up and down the country reap the rewards from our relationship with China’.
In the week that David Cameron led the UK’s largest ever trade visit to Beijing, new research by IPPR shows the UK has a much better export offer to make. China sends out more international students than any other country in the world. And as China’s economy grows, so does demand for international education.
Using such trips to encourage more Chinese students to study in the UK would be a ‘win-win’ for China and the UK. The UK’s education sector is globally renowned. But its funding structures are in a mess. Billions of pounds in student loans are likely to go unpaid. Last week the government had to stop some universities offering places to UK students due to a lack of funding. The government pledged in the autumn statement to lift the overall cap on UK students in 2015. But there are serious question marks over how this will be funded. In this context, international students provide vital revenue. The Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) estimate that they contribute over £13 billion to the UK economy each year, generating 70,000 jobs and keeping courses like maths and engineering viable. And there is room for growth: BIS estimates that the number of international students in UK higher education can increase by 15-20 percent over the next five years. In addition, providing young people with opportunities to live and work in the UK is likely to do far more to build an appreciation of ‘British norms and values’ than bungled conversations between the prime minister and Chinese officials.
Yet we heard nothing from David Cameron about this. The UK’s competitors, such as Australia and France have streamlined their visa processes and put together packages such as improved work rights to entice globally mobile Chinese people to study in their institutions. But the UK has done the opposite. The UK’s ‘post-study work’ route was closed in 2011. Application requirements have been made more convoluted. Education providers are being forced out by the cost of meeting strict regulations. Despite significant global growth, the overall number of international students coming to the UK to study has dropped from 245,000 a year in 2010 to just 176,000 a year.
The Government claims that the lower numbers are a result of tough action against ‘bogus students’. But the Home Office’s own analysis shows that ‘bogus students’ only account for a small part of this reduction. Rather, the reductions in student numbers are because of the government’s commitment to reduce net migration to the UK. International students comprise one third of all immigrants to the UK. In order to reduce immigration, the government have to drastically reduce the number of international students. While there is an argument to be had about reducing migration for other reasons, reducing the number of genuine students is directly against the UK’s best interests and is causing profound damage to a vital export industry. Importantly, this is an issue on which government, the education sector and public all agree on: 68% of British people want to see the number of migrants coming to study at UK universities maintained or increased.
The government faces a difficult problem balancing support for the education sector with responding to public concern about immigration. However, the policies the Coalition is pursuing are achieving neither. Instead, the government need to commit to increasing international student numbers by implementing a package of measures to attract the brightest and best while clamping down on abuse and ensuring that students contribute to life in the UK. Not to mention, promoting the UK’s colleges internationally. This will allow the UK to retain its reputation as a world leader in quality education, as well as provider of porcine products.