• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


If Britain Jumps Ship

If international students are truly valued for their contribution to the United Kingdom, then perhaps it is time to work on cohesive policies that complement rather than counter the aims of creating a welcoming environment for international students.

May 4, 2016

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum, known as the ‘Brexit’ vote, to decide whether Britain should leave the European Union (EU). It is impossible to predict the outcome of this referendum and the implications for UK higher education could be significant. Those in favor of Britain leaving the EU argue that the money saved from EU contributions could be used to independently support research in the United Kingdom, without the current administrative and regulatory burdens. This move would also give the UK government increased control over immigration into the United Kingdom, a growing political pressure in recent times. As a sector, UK higher education has come out strongly in favor of remaining within the EU as the United Kingdom benefits from being part of a wider scientific community, broader exchange opportunities for UK students and enhanced ability to attract talented researchers and academics into UK universities. An exit from the EU could threaten these current advantages as well as risk the flow of EU students into the United Kingdom.

EU Students

Students in UK higher education can arguably be categorized into three groups: home students, EU students and international (non UK, non EU) students. EU students are currently granted some of the privileges afforded to home students —they do not have to apply for a student visa, they pay the same fees as home students and they are eligible for a student loan from the UK government to fund their studies. Universities UK (UUK), the organization representing leaders of UK universities, argues for the many benefits that EU membership brings to British universities and their recent report specifically finds that “EU students make an enormous contribution to British university life and local communities. The figures show clearly that EU students spend money and create jobs in all corners of the UK. EU students also make a very important academic and cultural contribution to university life, creating an international, outward-looking culture on campuses that, in turn, benefits UK students.” A vote to leave the EU could mean that EU students would find themselves in a similar situation to non-EU international students with respect to fees and immigration status. In effect, this may reduce the categories of students from three to two: home students and international students.  What might be the consequences of such a move?


Policy On International Students

Government policy on international students in the United Kingdom lacks a history of consistency and coherence. Since the introduction of fees for international students in 1969, there has been a conflict between various government policies on international students and this conflict is increasingly evident today. On the positive side, the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) emphasizes the importance of welcoming international students to the country in their International Education Strategy (2013). In this strategy, BIS recognizes international students not only for the economic contribution they make to the United Kingdom but also for the soft power, cultural enrichment and development of informal ambassadors that international students can make possible. Elsewhere, government ministers have advocated for the advantages in attracting the ‘best and the brightest’ to study in the United Kingdom.

However, as the concern for reducing net migration in the United Kingdom has become more heated in recent years, the attitude toward international students is not always welcoming across the policy landscape. For example, international students are included in the net migration figures, and as a result the Home Office has been motivated to reduce the number of these students.

International students from outside the EU must apply for a Tier 4 visa, a specific visa required in order to enter the UK for study. The Tier 4 visa costs £328. In order to apply, students must show that they have been formally accepted by the university they plan to attend, that they have the financial means to support themselves for the length of their studies and that they have demonstrated an acceptable level of English (by an approved English Language Test). Students from some countries are asked to undertake a TB test. The Tier 4 visa has seen a number of changes over the past four years resulting in increased restrictions. 2012 saw the removal of the post study work visa, which had allowed students to work for two years after their study, and the introduction of increased responsibilities for UK universities for the monitoring and reporting of international students’ attendance. That same year, the United Kingdom introduced “credibility interviews” for some student visa applicants and imposed a surcharge for the National Health System for international students. While fees are capped at £9,000 for Home and EU students, students from outside the EU can pay up to four times as much.


Creating A Welcome Environment

Many university leaders have spoken out about the negative consequences of including international students in the net migration figure, and recent reports from the Chartered Association of Business Schools (2016) and London First & PwC (2015) are beginning to show that the removal of the post-study work visa, discourages international students from choosing to study in the United Kingdom.

In 2014/15 there were 124,575 EU students enrolled at UK universities, a number that represents a 1 percent decline from the previous year. During this period the number of British students declined by 2 percent while the number of non-EU students rose by 1 percent. In 2012, fees for Home and EU students increased from £3,225 to £9,000 and this is clearly having an effect on enrollment figures. A further increase in these fees, compounded by the cost and restrictions of a Tier 4 visa, would only serve to further discourage EU students from studying in the United Kingdom.

Yet this is more than a numbers concern. The United Kingdom, in its attempt to position itself as a global leader in international education, needs to cultivate a diverse population of students and staff at UK universities. At the moment, all students are not treated equally. For example, it is more difficult to apply for a Tier 4 visa from countries that are deemed to be ‘high risk,’ which means the system favors some countries over others. If international students, whether from the EU or outside the EU, are truly valued for their contribution to the United Kingdom, then perhaps it is time to start demonstrating a serious commitment to these students by responding to the many calls to remove international students from the net migration figure, and finally work on cohesive higher education policies that complement rather than counter the aims of creating a welcoming environment for international students. Oh, and putting the brakes on the ‘Brexit’ wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.


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