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Over­seas stu­dents re­port sig­nals shift in UK

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - John.mor­gan@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Am­ber Rudd, the UK’s home sec­re­tary, “de­serves real credit” for push­ing through a re­view of the im­pact of over­seas stu­dents, seen as an at­tempt to se­cure ev­i­dence for a shift in gov­ern­ment pol­icy, a sec­tor ex­pert has said.

The gov­ern­ment an­nounced on 24 Au­gust that it would com­mis­sion the in­de­pen­dent Mi­gra­tion Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee to “eval­u­ate the im­pact made by in­ter­na­tional stu­dents” in the UK, par­tic­u­larly their eco­nomic and so­ci­etal im­pacts. The group of ex­perts will re­port back by Septem­ber 2018.

On the same day, the Home Of­fice pub­lished new exit check data show­ing that, among non-Euro­pean Union stu­dents whose visas ex­pired in 2016-17, 97.4 per cent were recorded as hav­ing departed the coun­try while their visas were still valid. That left just 4,617 stu­dents who may have over­stayed their visas.

Pre­vi­ous Home Of­fice claims that about 100,000 stu­dents a year were over­stay­ing their visas, based on dis­cred­ited data gath­ered un­der a pre­vi­ous form of exit checks, formed much of the pol­icy ba­sis for the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s harsh stance on stu­dent visas un­der Theresa May’s regime as home sec­re­tary and then as prime min­is­ter.

Of­fice for Na­tional Statistics anal­y­sis of the new exit check data found that there was “no ev­i­dence of a ma­jor is­sue of non-EU stu­dents over­stay­ing their en­ti­tle­ment to stay”, de­liv­er­ing a ma­jor re­sult for Uni­ver­si­ties UK and other sec­tor groups, which have long warned against bas­ing pol­icy on flawed exit check data.

Some in the sec­tor sug­gest that, con­trary to pub­lic ap­pear­ances, Ms May does not have strong feel­ings on the over­seas stu­dent is­sue, and that the hard-line stance was driven pri­mar­ily by her for­mer ad­viser Nick Ti­mothy, now departed from gov­ern­ment after a dis­as­trous gen­eral elec­tion re­sult for the Tories.

Mr Ti­mothy’s exit may have opened the door for Ms Rudd to try to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where it be­comes log­i­cal to change pol­icy and, if the MAC were to show that the ben­e­fits to the UK of at­tract­ing in­ter­na­tional stu­dents far out­weigh the costs, that could pro­vide the ev­i­dence needed for a change.

Nick Hill­man, di­rec­tor of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute and a for­mer ad­viser to Lord Wil­letts in his time as uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter, said that he had long called for an MAC re­view of over­seas stu­dents and had “used to lobby for it” in gov­ern­ment.

“A proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion will show some of the worst fears of the Home Of­fice are un­founded, and Am­ber Rudd (pic­tured be­low) de­serves real credit for push­ing this through,” he said. “Clearly, it does re­flect the changed po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment since the elec­tion, too.”

Se­nior sec­tor fig­ures be­lieve that the key out­comes in gov­ern­ment pol­icy change, po­ten­tially aris­ing from the MAC as­sess­ment, might in­clude in­creased ef­forts by min­is­ters to pro­mote the UK as a des­ti­na­tion for in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, the re­turn of a post-study work visa (par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in any at­tempt to re­gain lost mar­ket share in In­dian stu­dents), and the re­moval of stu­dents from the net mi­gra­tion tar­get.

How­ever, tak­ing stu­dents out of the tar­get is now seen as re­duced in im­por­tance be­cause data show­ing that there is no ev­i­dence of an “over­stayer” prob­lem con­firm that stu­dents are not long-term mi­grants, which re­moves the in­cen­tive to try to drive down in­ter­na­tional stu­dent num­bers.

Ms Rudd’s let­ter to the MAC says: “Any post-study pro­vi­sions must strike a care­ful bal­ance be­tween pro­vid­ing com­pet­i­tive op­tions for the bright­est grad­u­ates from around the globe to re­main in the UK to work, while also main­tain­ing safe­guards against the type of wide­spread abuse that was seen un­der for­mer post-study work schemes. We there­fore have no plans to rein­tro­duce a post-study work route that does not lead to skilled work.”

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