UK Education Secretary to Fight Caps on International Students

UK Education Secretary to Fight Caps on International Students
Pictured: Education Secretary Gillian Keegan.

European debate on foreign academic talent rages on

As Wittenborg's local competitors at public universities are faced with a proposed ban on international recruitment imposed by the Dutch government and an on-going debate on migration, one of the Netherlands' European neighbours is engaged in a similar squabble. Over in the United Kingdom, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is currently battling a push by the Home Office to limit the number of international students. Keegan is of the opinion that the success of local universities on the international market should be a source of pride in the UK. She thinks the former EU member state should take in more international students, not fewer. Such a development is of interest to schools like Wittenborg, who formerly had a joint programme with Brighton University in the UK. This partnership was complicated by the UK's departure from the European Union in 2016, leaving the EU free-movement zone and making transactions significantly more challenging for international business. Keegan, among other figures in the British government, feels a reduction in foreign students would be a setback for the UK economy, which like the Netherlands is beset by labour shortages. She prefers to create more pathways for graduates to find jobs in struggling sectors.

Recently, the number of international students in the UK reached 680,000, surpassing the government's target of 600,000 by 2030. As UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman scrambles for ways to fulfil promises to cut migration figures, the recent boom in international students coming to the UK in an emerging, post-pandemic, global economy is an easy target for public scrutiny. However, as the British Office of National statistics cautions, these figures may be slightly inflated as students eagerly break free from pandemic-era travel restrictions. Further, due to the war in Ukraine, the country has faced a massive influx of those seeking refuge to the tune of tens of thousands. This may indicate that more time is needed to understand whether foreign enrolment in UK universities and net migration figures will continue to rise, or if they may eventually plateau in the coming years, even as more graduate-level students bring dependants like spouses or children.

Single cohort of students worth £25.9bn to economy

Last year, Braverman expressed an extravagant aim of reducing net migration figures down to “tens of thousands,” a figure also invoked by two former prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May. The inclusion of students in net migration figures was also heavily complained about by stakeholders under May's premiership. Member of the House of Lords Karan Bilimoria called plans to reduce student numbers, 'utter madness'. Lord Bilimoria, who formerly served as president of the Confederation of British Industry and is currently serving as Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, says he is 'very concerned’ regarding public developments. He stresses that reducing international students would be a setback for the country.

Despite often being considered a drain on public resources, Russell Group, a UK university lobby organisation, estimates that a single cohort of international students brings £25.9bn to the British economy, even when accounting for costs associated with students' dependants. This money does not just sit in universities' coffers; according to Russell Group, these benefits are felt throughout society. Russell Group highlights that, without foreign students, some master's-level programmes, especially in certain STEM areas, would be simply 'inviable'. In a recent report, Russell group found that at least 97.5% of students eventually left the UK on time, meaning this demographic is at a very low risk for overstaying their visas.

Students as soft power

The UK Education Secretary's active solidarity with international students and affirmation of their integrated role in the economy could serve as inspiration for local ministers, such as Dutch Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf. Based on the response received last year by Wittenborg President Peter Birdsall to his letter to the Minister of Education, Dijkgraaf does have sympathy for international students and wants to draft a responsible, research-based policy on the exchange of foreign talent. However, he recognises the limitations on and ineffective distribution of resources, perhaps a result of structural planning failures on the part of his political predecessors. He is subject to heavy pressure by his colleagues to help reduce student numbers, and in his position, he has limited options in opposing their whims for what Wittenborg believes is an unnuanced policy, especially in light of countries like Denmark struggling economically following a cap on student numbers.

Birdsall's letter to Dijkgraaf mirrored Keegan's reported sentiment that the exchange of international students – as well as their treatment – has a significant political purpose, and that universities and students can serve as a source of soft power abroad. In Birdsall's letter, he cautioned, that cutting the number of international students 'sends the wrong signal' and is antithetical to the cultural values which have allowed the Netherlands to develop its current successful international reputation. It is notable that Braverman's statements on international students have been criticised by stakeholders in the education sector as damaging the international reputation of local institutions. The European Commission, which seeks to further internationalise European education, is also aware of the diplomatic opportunities in transnational education, highlighting that students who spend time studying abroad have a more positive view of the EU. This means that if the UK is reducing the pool of this diplomatic resource, which notably does not cost the economy money but adds money to the economy, they would be gifting their EU neighbours a competitive advantage in the realm of politics, business and economy. This would also make studying in mainland Europe more attractive, especially at private schools like Wittenborg which are not subject to recruitment bans faced by public universities, and whose incoming students are not affected by the Dutch housing crisis.

WUP 01/03/2023
by Olivia Nelson
©WUAS Press