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Reducing International Students – Could This Backfire On The United Kingdom?

Media editor Kiren Graziano reflects on the potential impacts of reducing the number of international students attending UK universities.

In the wake of the unusually high net migration in 2022, there have been mutterings from Number 10 regarding a possible curb on international students. Sunak is committed to reducing migration levels, but is limiting the number of foreign students the best way to do this? 

The possible proposal will place restrictions on international students and cut admissions to “low-quality” degree courses. These restrictions could include limits to the universities foreign students are allowed to attend and to their ability to bring family to the United Kingdom as dependents.

While these policies may reduce net migration, they will have large scale negative impacts in the UK. International students pay higher tuition fees than British nationals; reducing the amount of high paying customers in the business of education will have wider effects that Sunak does not seem to be considering. 

If these policies come to fruition, universities may be at great financial risk. Some universities are heavily reliant on international fees, often losing money on teaching British students. King’s College London’s international fees range from roughly 23,000 to 31,000 GBP per year in tuition. If the number of foreign students is reduced or if foreign students are only allowed to attend certain ‘elite’ institutions, universities – especially those without the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge – will be feeling it in their pocketbooks. 

This lapse in tuition could ricochet back onto British students. Universities would feel their purse strings being tightened, and they would be inclined to push for an increase in the tuition of British nationals. If this were to happen, the access to education would be greatly limited while the demand for educated workers remains the same. Many UK students would be forced into taking out loans or would become unable to attend university if tuition costs were to rise. In limiting the number of international students, Sunak could be reducing the number of students in higher education across the board.

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has been adamant about reducing net migration through some widely disliked and inhumane means recently. She is, as to be expected, a proponent of reducing the number of foreign students in the UK. Braverman is quoted as saying “I think we have too many students coming into this country who are propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions.” 

The question of what qualifies as “substandard” or “inadequate” is yet to be defined by Braverman or anybody else. With the new push for maths to 18, it wouldn’t be surprising if the courses deemed adequate exclude many of the arts and humanities. This distinction between acceptable and unacceptable courses for international students seems completely arbitrary – especially when 98% of non-EU students leave on time when their student visas expire. A foreign student coming to the UK to study an unacceptable course in the eyes of Suella Braverman will most likely take their “inadequate” degree back to their home country. They would not have an effect on net migration, all they would have done for Britain is contribute to the economy through their tuition fees and general spending. 

The distinction in courses and institutions points to another gaping flaw in the potential limits on foreign students; the classism. By only allowing international students to go to universities and take courses that are deemed good enough, Sunak and the Conservative government would be adding a layer of elitism to education. While London universities, Oxford and Cambridge would still enjoy the fruits of international fees, universities without such prestige run the risk of bankruptcy.  

These are only the glaring theoretical faults of this proposal to solve the increase in net migration. There are, additionally, many concrete issues with this plan. 

International students greatly contribute to the economy during their time at university. When you take away their net costs from their net contributions it is found that foreign students have an economic benefit that’s greater than 25 billion GBP a year. This spreads out to be a benefit of around £390 per person in the UK. Therefore, foreign students provide a significant economic benefit; limiting them would be akin to an own-goal for the UK. 

It should also be noted that international students are not the greatest contributor to net migration. In 2021, only 18% of migrants granted settlement in the UK initially entered on a student visa. As stated before, 98% of non-EU students depart after their visa period ends. The Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group For International Students, Paul Blomfield MP stated, “Nobody’s concerned about international students in the debate on net headline migration numbers.” Targeting international astudents is attacking a strawman.

The measure of net migration itself should also be questioned as it does not describe anything about who is entering the UK, for what reasons or what their impacts are. 

Placing limitations on international students as an avenue to fix high net migration in the UK would be an ultimate failure. At best it would reduce the small number of permanent migrants that initially enter the UK on a student visa. At worst it could possibly create a classist education system that places value on certain courses, bankrupts universities that lack prestige and costs British students more money.

The recent push to reduce net migration bolstered by Sunak and Braverman has proven to be polarising, but the proposed solution of limiting international students shouldn’t be. It wouldn’t significantly impact net migration, and it has the potential for widespread negative economic effects. 

Before pushing these policies, Sunak should stop to think, without the 45% of international students paying international fees at Oxford, how much would his education have cost?

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