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UK must build on “instant” gains from post-study visa change

Interest in studying in the UK among prospective overseas students has already risen sharply following the government's decision to bring back study-study work visas. Now policy-makers and universities must build on this good news through the UK's new international strategy, says Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International.

UK must build on “instant” gains from post-study visa change

Interest in studying in the UK among prospective overseas students has already risen sharply following the government's decision to bring back study-study work visas. Now policy-makers and universities must build on this good news through the UK's new international strategy, says Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International. 

 

Last week’s UUK conference coincided with the long-awaited announcement that the government plans to reintroduce a post-study work visa for international graduates of UK universities. The new visa, modelled on a proposal published by UUK exactly one year ago, is actually the result of a very, very long tussle with government.

I personally feel as though I have spent half my professional life arguing that we should roll out the red carpet for international students, rather than giving them reasons to choose somewhere else to study. I hardly need to rehearse the reasons why.

My favourite slide on the issue has the title 26 billion reasons for a re-think, referring to the overwhelming evidence of the economic benefits which flow to all parts of the UK as a result of our popularity as a study destination. I have lost count of the business leaders, Cabinet Ministers, Select Committee Chairs and others who have joined the argument – but it has been a massive and collective lobbying effort.

For some weeks it has been obvious that we were on the brink of a change. An amendment standing in Jo Johnson’s name (and drafted by UUK) giving effect to our post study work proposal, was co-signed by both Priti Patel, now Home Secretary, and Boris Johnson. My nerves have been shredded by the prospect that the government would collapse before the change could be made.

The effect has been pretty instant. Within a day IDP Connect published data showing that there had been a 52 per cent increase in prospective students searching for courses in the UK. Only time will tell how considerable the impact will be – but my guess is that it will finally correct the lack-lustre performance of the UK in the competition for international students against competitor countries like the US and Canada.

I know that there are concerns about the coverage of the new visa – in particular the fact that there may be some students who are already in the system who miss out, because their current visas expire before the new visa can be introduced. This will all depend on the timing of implementation and you can be sure that we are pushing for this to happen as quickly as possible, so that as many students as possible benefit.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of this announcement is that now, finally, when we talk about international students we can talk about something other than visas.

Notwithstanding the gloom about Brexit, we have the wind at our backs when it comes to international engagement. A new international strategy, published in March, sets a target for the UK to welcome 600,000 international students by 2030 – an increase of about 30 per cent. Last week, speaking at the UUK conference, the Secretary of State invited the sector to exceed it.

What a welcome change. The strategy envisages that this aim will be achieved not only by improving the visa offer, but also by focusing attention on the international student experience, and on the effectiveness of joint work by government and the sector in relation to particular geographies. This commitment to a joint approach is hugely welcome – and has already provided us with a clear mechanism to address concerns, such as the challenge of retaining EU students post Brexit.

For our part, we want to think about how we can do more to support international graduates to secure good jobs. To this end we published the results of a major study on international graduate outcomes in July, and will follow this with a report on the way universities support international graduate employability later this autumn. We want to work with government to identify parts of the world where the UK underperforms in recruitment, and work together to address any barriers that may exist.

Perhaps most important of all: we want to ensure that we have some stability in visa policy, after a very long period of turbulence. We want to work with government to ensure we avoid the traps of the past, and especially to avoid risking political support for growth in international student numbers. This means trying to anticipate potential unintended consequences of last week’s policy change.

We have a huge opportunity as a result of the new visa route. We’re determined to make the most of it.

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