The importance of international students to British universities

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent public body that advises the government on migration issues, has just published a report on the impact of international students in the UK. Controversially, it recommends students should continue to be included in the Government’s net migration target. Below MAC’s chairman, Professor Alan Manning, explains his committee’s thinking, and a disappointed Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK, gives her response


HERE are over 750,000 students who come to the UK to study each year – in higher and further education, in

independent and language schools. Some come for short English language courses, others for PhDs at the frontier of scientific research. The UK has a long- standing comparative advantage in providing education to international students based on the importance of English in the global economy and the high quality of the courses offered. Historically, the UK has the second-

largest group of international students in the world after the US but there is a real risk we will be overtaken by Australia in the near future. And the UK leaving the EU poses new threats. There are no grounds for complacency – although international student numbers have risen in recent years, the UK’s overall market share has fallen slightly and competitor countries are more active in recruitment.

This is an area in which the UK can say it is truly world-leading

There is no doubt that international

students offer positive economic benefit, including cross-subsidising the education of domestic students and research. Universities are one of the largest sectors in many local economies; they play a vital role in research and innovation in the UK economy. If the government’s industrial strategy is to be a success it needs a vibrant higher education sector and it is impossible to imagine that without significant and

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strong recruitment of international students. The evidence suggests that, on balance,

domestic students have more positive than negative views of how international students affect their education. There is no evidence international students adversely affect the wider communities in which they live. Opinion polls suggest most people in the UK have a favourable view of international students even though they are less positively inclined towards immigration in general. There is currently no cap on the numbers of international students able to come to the UK to study and we recommend it stays that way. This is not a change in policy – the commissioning letter from the Home Secretary wrote, “the Government has consistently made clear that it has no plans to limit any institution’s ability to recruit international students”. When engaging with the sector some

seemed to be concerned the government had plans to introduce a cap. Many do not trust the government: when the commissioning letter also wrote, “There is no limit on the number of genuine international students” they may wonder what the phrase ‘genuine’ means. What the government means and what

many in the sector think the government means are not aligned. There is a risk this makes it harder for the sector and government to work together more closely to grow the number of international students; something both think desirable. The sector and government need to work in partnership to grow numbers; an appropriate migration regime is part of that but only a part. Many of the responses to the call for

evidence argued that students should be taken out of the government’s net migration

target. None suggested a practical way in which this might be done and we cannot see a reliable method. Even if a method was found, it would be unlikely to make much difference to the net migration statistics because most students leave the country and the ones who do not have to be counted. If there is a problem with students in the net migration target, it is with the target itself rather than the inclusion of students in that target. Responding to the report, Professor

Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: "While the UK continues

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