Opinion: The UK must welcome international students or risk falling behind its peers

UCL President & Provost Dr Michael Spence - Dr Michael Spence
UCL President & Provost Dr Michael Spence - Dr Michael Spence
For decades the UK has successfully attracted international students to study at our universities, bringing economic, research and social benefits. With talk the Government plans to restrict this access, UCL President & Provost Dr Michael Spence, explains the risks this poses.

The fact that many international students want to come to study in the UK is a vote of confidence in our country and its universities. As someone who has come to the UK from Australia, I wonder sometimes if that is appreciated as much as it should be by the Government.

The Australian Government recently announced a two-year extension to the post-study working rights of its international graduates. They are among many of the UK’s peer countries, such as the Canadian and US governments, that are taking clear steps to attract international students. This comes amid speculation that the Home Office is considering moving in the opposite direction. Restrictions on international students would risk undermining the UK’s status as a ’science superpower’, an education leader, and as an attractive destination for the best young minds.

Since 2021, graduates have been able to work in the UK for two years following their course on the Graduate Visa, a route restored after the realisation of the damage its 2012 removal had done. This has meant that talented individuals from across the globe fresh from the benefits of a university degree, and having perfected their English skills, are available to work in UK businesses and to support UK public services. International students bring fresh ideas, a diverse cultural and social perspective and extensive global networks. Many are inspiring individuals. Recently Forbes 30 Under 30 highlighted UCL student Udit Singhal who founded Glass2Sand, an initiative to convert glass into building material, saving it from going to landfill.

Yet reports suggest that the Government is considering making major restrictions to the Graduate Visa route - including reducing the time students can stay from 2 years to 6 months. This sits alongside suggestions that changes will be made to the ability of international students to bring their dependents with them. The proposed changes risk sending a signal that the UK is not a welcome place for international talent and would be an act of self-harm at a time when we face stiff competition from Australia and elsewhere to attract talented students.

We have great talent in the UK, but we are also world leaders in attracting talent from abroad. This is put at risk by the Government’s plans. Our culture and business environment work together with our world class universities to create international appeal. In the conversation about migration, we should not forget the enormous benefits that international students bring to our economy, our community, and our global influence.  

The UK’s international students provide more than just talent. The economic benefit of their expenditure supports people and businesses across the UK. University College London’s international students alone create £1.7bn annually in economic growth. Those at all UK universities are estimated by Universities UK to contribute over £25bn a year to the UK economy. Any deterrent to their presence here would be an impairment to much needed economic growth.

Restrictions on international student mobility would also harm universities themselves. Universities play a vital role in any plan for innovation led growth. The fresh ideas and global networks of international students are important in making our universities world leading. Contrary to some claims, their presence helps to fund teaching for domestic students, rather than restrict places. It also helps to support investment in research, which is not normally financed to cover its full economic cost. This is precisely the research that the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, will be investing in. If the Government introduces restrictions to international student mobility it will be undermining the new department before it has even started to fulfil its mission.

These concerns sit in a context of geo-political risk for many sectors of our economy. Universities are alive to these risks. University leaders are conscious of the need to diversify the mix of students for this reason. Again, the reported changes make this more difficult. 

In the last 20 years the UK’s ability to attract the most talented international students has been a success story of which the nation can be rightly proud. For that to continue it is important that we recognise that we need to promote the UK as an attractive and welcoming place to study. The Government’s plans do just the opposite and they risk the UK falling behind its peers internationally.

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