Overseas students turn away from the UK

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Foreign students coming to study in the UK’s world-class universities bring in £10bn a year, but the numbers are falling. Is it just a question of finances or should we have other concerns?

‘Just an old country apt for travel and study,’ is how one Chinese newspaper dismissively described the UK during David Cameron’s last China trip. While the jibe was provocative, it highlighted Britain’s standing as a global powerhouse in education, second only to the US. Ten of its universities are in the top hundred of the annual THE’s World University Rankings and each year it attracts over 300,000 new international and EU students for full-time courses. Almost a quarter of these students come from China. In this context, the newspaper’s comment almost seems like a compliment.

Students
Proudly international: But are visa restrictions driving away the world’s brightest minds?

Yet a new study by the Higher Education Funding Council shows that this reputation is under threat. In 2013 the number of international and EU students starting British courses fell by 4,595, to 307,205. That’s a significant drop coming after nearly 30 years of annual double-digit rises. Many experts worry that it is the start of a trend. They think that higher fees and toughervisa restrictions are driving potential overseas students elsewhere.
The latter were introduced in 2012 after it was found that more than a quarter of foreign students at London Metropolitan University did not have official permission to stay in the UK, and some lacked even basic English skills. Further investigations found that many ‘language centres’ were not schools, but a system to help immigrants enter the country. In one case, supposed ‘students’ were able to pay £500 to pass an English test.
Visa restrictions do make it more difficult for bogus students to enter the country, but the new study argues that genuine students are being caught up in what the business secretary, Vince Cable calls the country’s current ‘public panic’ about immigration.
Is the UK warding off security threats and future claims on the welfare state by repelling students from abroad as some suggest? Or is it just depriving itself of a close relationship with the best brains of tomorrow, individuals who pay the fees on which universities increasingly depend and who could also bring great benefits to the country?
Lessons in hospitality
Some argue that while tighter visa rules may make the UK seem less attractive, it is worth losing a few thousand potential students to ensure that our immigration system is not being abused. The number of legitimate students who can come to the UK to study is not a problem, they say; they are very welcome.
Others warn that the UK is driving away talented young people who will instead boost the economies of other countries. Politicians sounding tough on immigration merely benefit countries like the US and Australia, who are happy to welcome foreign talent. We must change path before it is too late.

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Lecturer: Abdulkhaliq Mohamed Sheikh Osman-Birmingham UK