The APPG for International Students launched their first Inquiry with a roundtable event hosted in Portcullis House on 3 July 2018. The roundtable was attended by experts and representatives from schools, English language provision, further education and higher education, as well as business and trade.
Paul Blomfield opened the roundtable as Co-Chair of the APPG for International Students, outlining the objectives of the APPG Inquiry: A sustainable future for international students in the UK? He noted the September release of the Migration Advisory Committee’s report into international students and the challenges of leaving the European Union as drivers for the inquiry. The aim of the inquiry is to come up with detailed recommendations on how we might reshape the policy agenda in light of the opportunities and challenges identified through the inquiry process.
The discussion focused around the key themes of the Inquiry.
In the Classroom
The roundtable participants shared case studies and evidence of how international students teach others about diversity and cultural sensitivity in an ever-developing way as students move throughout their education journey. Schools said international students help pupils learn about tolerance, diversity and aspiration. Further and higher education representatives shared how international students prepare UK students for life in an interconnected world, both globally and locally. The Chartered Association of Business Schools shared their survey which showed that 96% of their students said international students in the classroom made the experience of studying better. Universities UK International shared how international students are critical to supporting greater critical thinking in all students. Sharing experiences in university with people from different backgrounds allows students to challenge their own understanding and identify bias they didn’t know they had.
Sheffield University talked about the balance needed between specific support for international students, like vocabulary and cultural context, and the extraordinary contributions and dynamism they bring. Vice Chancellor Keith Burnett shared an example where the university provided more instruction to international students taking town and country planning degrees to ensure they understood vocabulary and the UK context that the course was taught in. The students then went on to complete comparative research projects using their experiences in both the UK and their home country which shared the international context with UK students.
Many representatives spoke about viability of courses. The Association of Colleges noted how international students in-fill into existing courses and for many colleges international students sustain key provision such as A-level maths, physics and other sciences. A census from the Chartered Association of Business Schools showed 68% of their students were from outside the EEA, 11% were from the EEA and only 21% were from the UK. They also said that if there were no international students, 30% of business schools would not have Postgraduate education at all. NUS shared the results from a survey they conducted in 2017 which showed that 25% of the students surveyed felt their courses would not run without international students. Alex Proudfoot of Independent Higher Education noted that in some cases entire specialist institutions are made viable by international students, and would close if they didn’t have access to EU and non-EU student migration. He also welcomed the new focus for the UK export strategy to SMEs and said the government needs to support SME education institutions to recruit more international students.
The roundtable participants also shared evidence of how fee income from international students in Boarding and Independent Schools support the feasibility of many schools in rural areas. In most institutions additional fee income from international students allows schools to provide more bursaries to local students who would otherwise be educated in the tax-payer funded system.
Immigration Rules and Compliance
Many roundtable participants expressed concern that immigration policy was limiting the diversity of international students within education institutions as well as the number, size and types of institutions who could recruit them. They also expressed concern that the UK was giving confusing messages to prospective students. The frequency and negative direction of the changes being made, combined with the lack of clear and consistent messaging across all levels and departments of government including the Cabinet Office, Trade, Education, Home Office, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has resulted in messaging which is at best confusing and at worst unwelcoming.
Attendees gave evidence that government policy which named countries as high or low risk made it much more difficult to recruit international students from a diverse range of backgrounds. While the individual students from a country are genuine in their intentions to study in the UK, placing barriers and suspicion on a country-wide basis made it more difficult for students from countries categorised as high risk to apply to the UK successfully. Education institutions who recruit students through the Tier 4 sponsor route must have 90% or more of their student visas approved or they risk losing that licence, which would impact their current international students. This approach compounds the risk of recruiting students from countries who are not branded as low risk by government, and makes some education institutions warry of recruiting from countries outside the low risk list.
Participants also expressed concern that the Tier 4 points based system has lost its objectivity. The introduction of credibility interviews and the removal of the points calculator means that the UK no longer has a “Points-based System” but relies most heavily on subjective interviews. Participants outlined cases where visas were refused because students had said in credibility interviews they were studying for their degree in the UK to return home to work in the family business, or where English language students acknowledged there were English-language schools in their home country and told they should study there instead. Those who had identified these issues suggested there was little training for those conducting credibility interviews and that using skype to conduct the interviews made them less reliable.
The roundtable also discussed the impact of different immigration rules for different students or providers. Representatives from independent higher education shared a report by Exporting Education UK in 2016 which showed 70-80% drops in the number of visa applications for independent providers and FE colleges after rules were introduced which removed many rights for students at these institutions that university students maintained. While some institutions will regain these rights for their students under new rules coming in next year alongside the Office for Students, many still face restrictions. Sunena Stoneham from the Independent Schools Council shared how school pupils who come to do A-levels and choose to switch to another similar programme must go home and re-apply where university students can switch their course in-country.
Alex Proudfoot from Independent HE also shared concern that the immigration compliance system is designed for larger institutions, with data points that track performance and percentages. He shared a case study where several IHE members have had to explain why their visa refusal rate went over 10% due to the refusal of two students. He encouraged the inquiry to explore how to extend the diversity of the education sector we offer to the world. The Independent Schools Council echoed this concern, noting that while there are 670 independent schools on the Tier 4 sponsor register, which makes up almost 50% of the entire register, some of them sponsor only one or two international pupils per year. The need to meet very low refusal limits and the burden of immigration compliance in general mean many must employ someone to deal with Tier 4 alone. The considerable cost of immigration compliance was also noted by Sheffield University who said they spend over £1 million on the Tier 4 process.
Participants encouraged the inquiry to explore how immigration compliance may have created a hostile environment for students and identify the opportunities to change this. NUS cited examples where universities felt forced to undertake home visits or use biometric attendance monitoring tools like fingerprint scanners to lower the risk that they would lose their licence. Sarah Cooper from English UK shared examples of where students coming on short term study visas for English language courses have encountered a hostile environment in embassies, where they are treated with suspicion for wanting to study English outside their home country.
Participants noted the opportunity the inquiry has to present a better and more competitive system for international students, especially in the current political context. Many participants shared barriers and opportunities to remove these for international students looking to study in the UK:
- International Schools said that visa restrictions have forced students to reapply at several stages of their education and this is off-putting for parents who are thinking about where their child will go to school and continue through to university.
- English language schools noted that the removal of the ability to extend in country saw a decimation of English language numbers four years ago and it is only just beginning to recover.
- Universities UK said the inquiry should look hard at visa costs as the recent doubling of the NHS charge for international students is yet another barrier for those coming in.
- The Association of Colleges suggested the inquiry look at the entry level parts of the education system, because if a student has a good experience at A-levels, ESOL, pathways, school and can move flexibly into further or higher education they are more likely to stay and support the local economy.
- The China Britain Business Council suggested that when there are changes to the system we need to be sending clear and positive messages to current and prospective students, especially in their home countries. There is not enough coordination between the different government bodies and the institutions recruiting students to ensure the right messages get to students.
In the Community
The roundtable discussed the contributions international students made to the local communities where they studied but also the support local communities had given back to the students. They also sought to explore some of the challenges faced by communities.
Emma Meredith from the Association of Colleges described the extensive use of homestay accommodation by further education colleges (65% of AoC colleges use homestay). Homestay accommodation is a benefit to the community in that it brings in additional spend, is a direct example of integration with people in the community and a contribution British people make to the experience of international students.
Sue Edwards representing the Pathway Colleges also outlined the work institutions do to build purpose built student accommodation for the benefit of international students, greatly reducing the burden on local student and resident accommodation in their communities. The Pathway Colleges have also conducted a study which can show the direct positive impact of international students on jobs in the community. She shared many of the ways international students provide jobs outside the education institutions they study in including taxis, entertainment, restaurants, and gyms for example.
The Independent Schools Council shared their research on expenditure in local communities by international students, and noted that many of their schools are the only or main employer in the rural area, and generate more income from local tourism from visiting families.
NUS shared examples of the local community work that international students are undertaking, including a student coaching a local football team in Stirling. Sheffield University also suggested that a higher proportion of international students are involved in volunteering. Universities UK shared an example of how international students are encouraging widening participation students to have a study abroad experience through a volunteering programme. Participants identified this as an area for the inquiry to explore further.
Co-Chair Paul Blomfield asked the group to explore the challenges faced by communities of hosting international students.
Boarding Schools representative Caroline Nixon explained that their schools often had their own health centres which employed nurses and in some cases doctors which means it is very rare that an international school pupil would use the NHS. Sheffield University suggested that international students make a more modest impact on community services than other students as they are generally more independent, better looked after and less likely to use the NHS. Others agreed that issues felt by the community are more likely to relate to students in general. Anne Keim representing the Chartered Association of Business Schools noted that there can be pressure on housing and other issues in communities with education institutions but these cannot be attributed to international students alone and are more about growing student numbers. The roundtable did agree that there was a need for specialist knowledge in mental health services for international students because they can face challenges slightly different to domestic students.
In Regions and Nations
Vivienne Stern from Universities UK International urged the inquiry to explore how the pool of talent from international students can better help UK businesses export. She also noted an upcoming report from Universities UK which looks at the post-study work offer in the UK’s main competitor countries for international students and proposes a new global graduate talent visa. UUK’s research shows that, of the major countries recruiting international students, the UK is the only country not to offer a clearly labelled post-study work opportunity of up to two years. Since the removal of the clearly labelled Post-study Work Visa for the UK in 2012, recruitment in the top countries has gone up, Australia, 18%; Canada, 26.9%; Germany, 16.3%; Ireland, 42.5%; New Zealand, 39.3%; USA, 22.5%; but for the UK recruitment has only risen 0.7% between 2012-2015. Vivienne argued strongly that a post-study work opportunity in the UK must be competitive and must be clearly labelled for students.
Lord Bilimoria asked Universities UK to provide the inquiry with any data they had on the impact on international students in the four years after removing the Tier 1 Post Study Work visa in the UK.
The roundtable encouraged the inquiry to look at solutions which would address the skills gaps which the UK is currently and will experience after we leave the EU. The solution should not require the Home Office to monitor or police the visa directly, and should not require the employer to have a Tier 2 licence. Several attendees raised the issue of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises not being able to recruit international students due to the complexities of Tier 2. The Chartered Association of Business Schools commented that students could help SMEs export, noting that those businesses who export grow the fastest. Universities UK also suggested that the education sector could do more to help SMEs become Tier 2 sponsors of international students. Independent Higher Education noted the Department for International Trade’s aim to make the UK a nation of exporters and suggested the inquiry should explore what recommendations they could give to the Department for International Trade.
Finally, the roundtable suggested that the existing Tier 2 system was discriminatory as it relied on a minimum salary which changed based on the applicants during that month. With salaries so heavily impacted by gender pay gaps and regional variances, women in particular will be disadvantaged.
Recruitment in Regions and Nations
The roundtable noted recent reports which showed there were three times as many students in London and the South East than any other region or nation in the UK.
Boarding Schools gave evidence that more schools with international students are outside of London and the South East and are predominantly in rural areas. The Independent Schools Council pointed out how these students and their visiting families bring diversity to areas which may not experience it otherwise.
The Chartered Association of Business Schools provided evidence that when the visa regime tightens, it is those in the regions that lose the most international students.
The roundtable also shared evidence on the wealth of tourism that international students bring to regions and nations, both from visiting families or friends and from returning graduates. Sarah Cooper from English UK gave evidence from their research that there were concentrations of English language schools in regions and tourist areas like Bournemouth and Brighton because these students were also interested in experiencing the local area. She noted that these schools are often dominated by EU students and expressed concern that the UK’s exit from the EU would threaten that success.
Martin Barrow, representing the China Britain Business Council expressed concern that some of the UK’s messages, like “Brightest and Best” were turning students away from studying in the UK and that this impacted the universities outside of London and the South East the most. He noted that this messaging was not well received by Chinese students and that a different approach needed to be taken.
Paul Blomfield also noted that Scotland had particularly high numbers of EU students and asked if there was any evidence on the potential impact of Brexit on these numbers.
Research, Trade and Soft Power
Lord Bilimoria introduced the discussion on research, trade and soft power by noting the points already raised about the need for the UK to be competitive and to understand the opportunities and challenges from across the spectrum of international students, from schools, further education, English language, pathways and universities. He also noted the concerns over Brexit and the impact this will have on trade, innovation and research. He addressed the challenge of the perception of the UK as a welcoming place for international students and how that translates into students choosing not to study here. He noted the recent change in the low-risk country list and how countries like China were added but India was not, which has insulted those in India.
Sir Keith Burnett of Sheffield University recommended that the inquiry explore the innovation and research generated by international students directly and the influence this has on SMEs, regional companies, organisations and government services like the NHS after they graduate. He also suggested looking at how fee income from international students makes up for the shortfall in research funding from government.
The roundtable strongly agreed that the government needs to create robust education export data, which is currently not being collected. They also agreed that diversification of source markets and the types of provision will help other UK business grow in more diverse markets. Independent HE suggested the UK should set a target to increase market share in every market as well as increasing overall numbers. They also suggested looking at the impact of professional education and short courses and if we could make the UK the number one destination for these in the world. The Association of Colleges added short term skills training expansion to that ambition.
The roundtable concluded that one of the key things to come from this inquiry was the importance of how we present ourselves as the UK and how the welcoming message for international students is crucial to how successful we are in engaging with the rest of the world in areas like trade, research and diplomacy. The roundtable participants agreed that the UK needs clear and consistent positive messages about how welcome international students are and for this to happen there needs to be a coordinated approach to developing changes to the visa system. The inquiry should also make some recommendations of what specific key messages the UK needs to develop to encourage more international students to study and improve our relations with the countries they come from. The roundtable encouraged the inquiry to also consider the role of the British Council and the GREAT campaign, alongside the key government departments involved, in creating and sharing these messages.