International students make up 17% of migrants coming to the UK every year. Approximately 50% of them stay in the UK to work thus affecting the precious Net migration statistic. The Conservatives want to reduce this number to swing the dismayed UKIP supporters to the Tory side. Of course the Tory government is afraid to step on university toes by limiting the number of students, which may cross the xenophobic threshold. But they can (and are) limit the number of post-study visas being granted so they can kick students out to improve their statistics. But is there actually a logical and statistical argument to doing this?
Student numbers are falling…
Total student numbers have been falling year on year, as per Figure 1, since the increase in university fees to £9,000 per annum for an undergraduate course in 2012. Of course all of this decrease in student numbers is not just related to the cost of getting a degree, but also related to the UKs crackdown on international student numbers. As per Figure 2, there has been a drop in international numbers since 2012.
Figure 1: The number of students studying in the UK over the past 15 years (Source: HESA)
Figure 2: Recent decline of international student numbers students (Source: Migration Observatory/ONS
In 2010, the UK government introduced the term “Highly Trusted Sponsor” to denote a higher education institute that was eligible to provide a Tier 4 Visa to international students. More than 800 institutions lost their license to provide Tier 4 visas. The UK Government did this because it was believed some low ranking education institutes existed merely to provide an easy exit into the country for international students, who then worked instead of studying. At first glance, it would seem that a reduction in numbers was indicative of their guilt, but this also coincided with the abolition of the Tier 1 - Post study work visa. The enrollment of Indians halved consequentially in the following years, with a resultant 10% drop in the number of STEM students up to 2013. The “Highly Trusted Sponsor” tag is no longer to be mentioned of course, with the term “Tier 4 Sponsor” now preferred. As of March 2016, there are 1,383 Higher Education Institutions (HEI) eligible for this title to provide sponsorship to foreign students.
But there was too many International Students anyway right?
Walking around the campuses of London universities it seems that Britons are in a minority, or perhaps they just don’t go to university as much as the numbers would indicate. British born and bred students still maintain a significant majority of places as per Figure 3. Of the 2.3 million students in the UK, British people make up 80% of students.
Figure 3: Percentage of British, EU and Non-EU students at UK HEIs (Source: UKCISA)
There is almost double the amount of foreign students in Postgraduate studies in the UK than undergraduate. This makes sense for two reasons:
Figure 4: Number of foreign students in select countries (Source: Institute for international Education)
Of course this needs to be considered in context to the total number of students. Figure 5 shows the percentage of foreign students in each of the countries in Figure 4. The UK around 20% % is certainly higher than its economic counterparts (France and Germany), but still in the same ballpark.
Figure 5: Percentage of non-native (foreign) students in selected countries (Source: UKCISA)
OK, but all the EU students are going to Scotland and using British taxpayers money and the internationals are taking valuable places at London Universities right?
In a bizarre two finger salute to Westminster, education is free for Scots and EU citizens in Scotland. Except for fellow EU and UK citizens in Wales, Northern Ireland and England who pay £9,000 a year. As a devolved government, it is up to Scotland how they use their education budget. However, the percentage of international students is still spread pretty evenly throughout the Union as per Figure 6, with perhaps a slight increase in Scotland due to said ruling and less in Northern Ireland due to continued confusion by foreigners as to whether it is actually in the UK or not.
Figure 6: Percentage of non-native (foreign) students across the UK (Source: UKCISA)
So these foreigners are either taking up the best courses or just doing simple degrees to get into the UK?
This is the bipolar disorder that Brexiteers suffer from. Immigrants are either totally useless or so superior that they erode opportunities for British people. There is no indication that foreigners take all the positions at the biggest and best universities. Figure 7 shows a plot of the largest universities by number of total students in the UK. There are some notable names in there, UCL, Manchester, Edinburgh, Kings College and newly crowned worlds number 1 – Oxford. Looking at the number of foreign students, the average percentage of foreign students remains around the total average of 20%.
Figure 7: Number of students across largest universities in the UK (Source: HESA)
But what about at the other end of the spectrum, universities that let in loads of foreigners to get money?
Figure 8 shows which universities hoard the largest percentage of foreign students. It is pretty clear that these are not Mickey Mouse universities – LBS, LSE, RCA, RCM, SOAS and indeed the beloved University of Cambridge. Many of the universities with a high percentage of foreigners in Figure 8 are specialisation universities drawing talent from across the world. It is simply beneficial to take the best talent in the realms of art, music, business and economics and to share ideas. Indeed, as Figure 9 shows there is a clear correlation between the universities with the highest percentage of foreigners and the Times University Ranking.
Figure 8: Universities with highest percentage of foreign students (Source: HESA)
Figure 9: Correlation between the percentage of foreign students and university raking
(Source: HESA/University Times Ranking)
The correlation would be even clearer had many of the reputable specialised universities been able to garner a rating, which is the preserve of broad spectrum universities. For example, London Business School nor Royal College or Art nor Royal College of Music nor Cranfield (post-grad only) have rankings.
Of course, it is not obvious to say that these are better universities because they have more foreign students. Clearly foreign students are drawn to the best universities who in turn benefit financially from international students and in turn have more money to climb ranking ladders
Still these universities are just using these students to make money and then let them loose on the UK once they are finished!
As per Figure 10, there is no difference between what an EU student and a British student pays for their education in the UK. Therefore, there is no advantage financially for taking an EU student over a British student. However clearly there is some large economic benefit to taking international students over EU students. Therefore, some universities should be rigging the system and just taking International students over EU students? Well, no. As Figure 11 shows, there is a reasonable correlation between the percentage of EU students and International students in UK universities.
Figure 10: Average cost per annum of a UK degree by UK/EU and international students
(Source: Times Higher Education Guide)
Figure 11: Correlation between the percentage of International and EU students in UK universities (Source: HESA)
There is certainly a bias to have approximately double the amount of international students as EU students in UK universities, something which is reflected in the financial statements.
So where are the universities getting their money?
The rise in tuition fees in 2012 has been more than enough to offset the decline in Funding Body Grants as per Figure 12. Of the £15 billion income in 2014/15 from tuition fees, approximately half comes from international students as per Figure 13.
Figure 12: HEI income by source (Source: HESA)
Figure 13: HEI tuition fees by source (Source: HESA)
Not only are international student’s imperative to financial stability of UK HEI but also so is the EU. As per Figure 14, the EU has lately provided virtually the same funding to UK HEI research as the UK government itself. Not only will this disappear but also so will many international students who do the research.
Figure 14: Research funding by source (Source: HESA)
Why take in foreigners at all?
There are two answers that jump out at this question:
Lack of STEM education
Figure 15 shows the most popular subjects in 2016 at A-level. The government will be happy to see that Maths takes the top spot, as it is deemed a requirement of any top tier university whether the candidate wants to do Medicine, Politics or Engineering. However the waters get muddied quite quickly thereafter.
Figure 15: A-level subjects by student numbers (Source: Join Council for Qualifications)
Psychology is the fourth most popular subject. Other “soft skill” subjects like Art, History, Geography, English and Sociology all make it into the top ten most popular subjects. Languages are almost non-existent. Physics – the foundation of any engineering degree – languishes in 9th place. This is not to say that English and Psychology are not useful, but to a 15 year old at a state school with inadequate career guidance, being able to study just three subjects results in choosing softer subjects, and when they realise at 17 that they want to study a STEM subject, they can’t because they only studied English, Psych and Geography. The A-Levels are forcing students to specialise too early. They pigeon hole students who don’t get adequate guidance allowing the well informed elite to maintain their grip on society. A Baccalaureate or Irish Leaving Cert style approach of having 4 core subjects like English, Maths, a European language and one science, along with 3 electives is a much superior approach.
The dirge in physics uptake is reflected in the higher than average percentage of foreign students in Engineering in the UK as per Figure 16. Other STEM subjects such as Computer Science and Mathematics are also above average. But it is Business which has far and away the highest percentage of foreigners and this is the key point as to why Amber Rudd and the Tories are wrong about limiting foreign student numbers.
Figure 16: HEI subjects with highest percentage of foreigners (Source: UKCISA)
As Figure 15 shows, foreign languages are deemed surplus to requirements for British students. This is why Britons have the linguistic capabilities of a Jaffa cake. Certainly there is an arrogance that English is the business language of the world and there is no need to learn other languages. I recommend going on a business trip to France to test that theory. Many countries like to conduct business in their native tongue. Even in fellow English speaking Republic of Ireland, it is a requirement for students to study a European language to Irish Leaving Certificate (A-level equivalent) in order to gain entry to university.
For UK universities to take in foreign students is extremely beneficial to British business. As per Figure 17, the majority of countries which the UK trades with do not speak English as their first language. The vast chasm that exists between Chinese and English means few Britons will ever get a handle on it. This is reflected in Figure 18, which shows that the majority of students come from China.
Figure 17: The UKs top trading partners (Source: ONS)
Figure 18: Number of foreign students in UK HEI in 2016 (Source: UKCISA)
With the eradication of the Tier 1 visa, employing people from outside the EU has become extremely tough for British business. A minimum salary of £46,000 pounds needs to be paid and the candidate needs to be classified as “highly skilled”. But by having a student come straight out of university, British businesses now have access to British educated students who speak a high standard of English and who also have the linguistic and cultural nuances to improve business opportunities abroad. Plus, they only need to pay a minimum salary of £20,000 under the Tier 2 visa.
OK, there are some benefits to having foreign students but some are staying here illegally afterwards right?
When the Tier 4 student visa runs out, it is time for an international student to leave the country, unless they can obtain sponsorship from a company for a Tier 2 visa. Of the ~110,000 Non-EEA students in the UK, approximately 50% of them will be granted a visa to stay in the UK as per Figure 19.
Figure 19: Number of visa extensions granted to non-EEA students from 2001-2015
(Source: Migration Observatory/ONS)
The majority of the other 50% will return home to work for the companies which sponsored them to come to the UK. Inevitably there will be some that are disappointed not the get a job/visa in the UK and are asked to leave. The number of students who stay on in the UK is an unknown but the estimates vary from as little 1,500 to 20,000 student’s year staying on in the. Considering the estimates of illegal immigrant numbers in the UK are in the region of 1 million, a few thousand well educated poor sods here and there is rather inconsequential.
Why it is totally illogical to target international students as potential illegal immigrants
The USA has a pretty well-known illegal immigration problem. The big headliners are Mexicans and other Central and South Americans. These people are not there to study but cross the border illegally. Furthermore, there are many illegal immigrants who go on holiday to the US and never leave. These people are no different than students who stay on illegal. They are there illegally and may be deported. If the UK government is afraid of international students overstaying their welcome (or visa), then surely they must equally worried about holidaymakers going into hiding at the end of their visa? This happens in the UK. Perhaps the Tories should ban holiday makers as well. I’m sure that would be good for business, at home and abroad.
Net migration in the UK has increased in recent years while the number of international students has decreased significantly. The UK has already set its sights on Eastern European immigration via Brexit. It is madness to simultaneously set its sights on reducing international student numbers to hasten the decrease in net migration.
The current Tory government is suffering the same bipolar disorder as many hard-line Brexiteers. They want to unchain themselves from the EU to increase business opportunities on a global scale. But they also want to insulate Britain from the effects and necessities of globalisation. EU and international students enrich the fabric of Britain and British people’s lives whether they like it or not. Surely a history lecture on Mao is ameliorated by the presence of Chinese citizens. Surely a politics class on the EU is balance by the presence of Germans, French and Polish. Surely a medical class is advanced by a Russian who has totally opposite theories developed during their insular cold war period. A reduction in foreign student numbers belongs to the same line of thinking as safe spaces in universities. There is a concerted effort to insulate Britain and its people, from untoward words, ideas and outsiders. Michael Gove wished to eradicate American novels from schools in favour of British texts in a promotion of British culture. British culture needs to be promoted abroad too. This is done by allowing foreign students to enter this country. To take pictures next to a red phone box by Big Ben and post them on Instagram. To bring back a bottle or two of Scottish whiskey, further adding to an ever attuned Chinese palette.
If Britain wishes to survive in a post-Brexit world, then foreign students are best way to target a growth in global business. These are the future business people and leaders of the world, both in the UK and in their home countries. If you are good enough to accept a Chinese bank in Canary Wharf, be good enough to accept some of their citizens as workers.