The government’s increasingly tough rhetoric around immigration is threatening to deter thousands of the best international students from studying at UK universities and undermine the multibillion-pound market in foreign students, according to the head of the group that represents British universities.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the flurry of recent statements by senior ministers calling for a crackdown on “bogus students” had given the impression that overseas students were no longer welcome and was driving them towards competitor countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.
“We are concerned about the language and the atmosphere that is being created, not least because it plays very, very badly internationally,” Dandridge said. “Whatever the intentions of the politicians are … every time these sorts of comments are made by the home secretary or others it does have a potentially very damaging impact internationally.”
The home secretary, Theresa May, announced last month that consular staff would interview more than 100,000 prospective students in an attempt to prevent bogus applicants entering the country. She also said immigrants were responsible for pushing up UK house prices. The comments followed the introduction of new limitations on students’ right to work during and after their studies.
The latest figures from Ucas (pdf) and the Office for National Statistics show a slowdown in the number of non-EU undergraduate students applying to study in the UK. Since 2007, applications through Ucas from non-EU students have risen by an average of almost 7% a year.
Ucas’s January figures will be released in a couple of weeks, but preliminary statistics show an increase of 0.8%.
The ONS figures released in November showed a 26% fall in the number of visas issued for the purposes of study in the year to September 2012. Universities UK said up-to-date figures for postgraduate applicants were currently unavailable, but Dandridge said anecdotal evidence suggested the downward trend was set to accelerate.
“What universities are reporting to us [is that] they are seeing significant drops, particularly from India, from Pakistan and now from China and Saudi Arabia. These are countries that send large numbers and also they are important countries in terms of international engagement and industry engagement, so we want to be promoting and fostering relations with them, not erecting barriers.”
Overseas students are estimated to bring £8bn a year into the economy (pdf), a figure projected to rise to £16.8bn by 2025, according to a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
In November, Boris Johnson released figures revealing a 9% fall in the number of Indian students applying to study in the UK last year. A further drop of 25% is forecast for this year.
Dandridge said there was still a “vibrant market” in international students coming to UK universities, but said any fall in numbers would affect the country’s standing as a whole, not just its universities. “They bring connections that reap dividends in financial and cultural and social terms way into the future,” she said. “By all manner of measures our universities are very strong and powerful international brands. This is a very important matter … this is mission critical for universities and indeed for the country.”
In 2011, David Cameron pledged to cut the net level of immigration to the UK to fewer than 100,000 before 2015 general election. An Institute for Public Policy Research report last month suggested the target would be missed. As the pressure mounts, universities fear ministers will increasingly focus on overseas students.
Dandridge said universities had been campaigning to exclude international students from net migration figures, a position she said had been backed by five parliamentary committees that have examined the issue.
“We have to think much more carefully about how all this is expressed and the sort of tub thumping and the easy elision of international students and fraud and bogus applications plays very badly internationally. [We need to] encourage politicians and decision-makers to portray the UK as being open and welcoming to international students. That can be done without in any sense compromising our immigration laws… At the moment politicians are failing in that task.”
Mark Harper, the immigration minister, acknowledged the “important contribution” international students made to the economy. “The UK’s education system is one of the best in the world but to maintain this reputation it is vital that we tackle the abuse of the student route, while making sure Britain remains open for business,” he said. “Too many institutions were selling immigration not education and since we have tightened our rules over 500 colleges have lost the ability to bring in international students.”