Opinion

Sajid Javid: International students should study then leave the UK

7 min read

10 July 2015

Business secretary Sajid Javid discussed the government's plans on Radio 4, saying that it needed to develop a system that wasn't abused by people using the right to study as a route to settlement. Will this discourage bright prospects from working in the UK, with a knock-on effect on productivity?

“What we need to make sure is that our immigration system allows those from abroad that want to come to Britain to study in our world-class universities and fantastic colleges, to come here,” Javid said on the Today programme.

He added that the UK also needs a system “that doesn’t allow any abuse when people are using the right to study as a way to achieve settlement in Britain”.

“So, we’ve got to break the link and make sure it’s focused on people who want to study and then, once they’ve had their studies and completed that, then they leave,” he said. 

Immigration policies discouraging international students have recently been criticised by leading figures in higher education. The Conservatives now include foreign students in the net migration statistics and have enforced stricter criteria on students staying in Britain to work following the completion of their degrees.

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According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), nearly a fifth (18 per cent) of those in higher education are international students. The non-EU students have only four months after the end of their course to find a job, or else face deportation. Many non-EU graduates go home following their studies, but those who want to work in the UK usually apply for a Tier 2 visa.

To be eligible, you must have been offered a job at a particular skills level by an employer with a Tier 2 visa sponsor licence, your job must pay a minimum of £20,800 (though this may vary depending on the job), and you must have £945 in savings.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice chancellor of Cambridge University, recently criticised the set-up for international students, suggesting that the great economic benefits they could bring was being “sacrificed at the altar of political expediency”.

He described the inclusion of overseas students in UK migration targets as “ludicrous”, and that universities like Cambridge had to compete in a highly mobile, global market for both the best staff and students.

In terms of advanced research, “there are no prizes for coming second,” Borysiewicz warned, and as around 60 per cent of postdoctoral researchers at Cambridge were from overseas, he suggested they would simply go elsewhere if the UK made it unattractive and unwelcoming for them to work there.

Cambridge is a global leader ranked among the top three international research and teaching universities and Real Business recently revealed it to be one of the UK’s most entrepreneurial universities – if negatively impacted by a drop in international students, this could have a negative effect on its standing here too. 

While a spokeswoman for the Business, Innovation and Skills department said there was “no cap” on the numbers of overseas students, the vice chancellor of Cambridge University said challenges with recruiting overseas staff and students had become “one of the biggest threats facing UK universities”.

The ongoing debate as to how best to raise the UK’s productivity also came under the spotlight.

Meanwhile, Ross Smith, director of policy at the North East Chamber of Commerce said he was a “bit baffled as to why Sajid Javid wants to gave talented foreigners a great education, then insist they use it in someone else’s economy”.

Infrastructure, training and skills have been highlighted as areas to focus on for upping the UK’s lacklustre productivity. CIPD’s chief economist Mark Beatson had said the introduction of an apprenticeship levy reflected the importance of investing in training, but it could reduce “broader workforce development” if introduced in isolation, without consideration of the UK’s broader skills challenges. He mentioned “inadequate leadership and management capability” as examples.

The government was advised to “encourage a culture of lifelong learning, training and development”, though the immediate response to Javid’s latest comments indicated some felt discouraging international students from plying their trade in the UK wasn’t conducive to this.

Borysiewicz said migrants “revitalised economies” and were a key source of innovation – which is something to consider amid concerns over the UK economy failing to innovate.

In April 2015, Britain issued a fresh warning over its poor record in innovation and embracing technological stage – indicating that productivity fell in 2014 for the third year in a row.

Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills at the CBI, said that while UK businesses have made “good progress” on job creation, productivity had not yet followed suit. The focus should therefore “be on spurring businesses to innovate and raise their performance”.

There are differences in which sectors have been particularly afflicted by the productivity problem. Technological developments – helped by collaboration between companies, universities and government, have worked to make manufacturing more efficient.

With that in mind, it seems international students are, and should continue to be, a valued part of the higher education system – Javid may want to make sure studying isn’t being used as a route to settlement, but the government needs to be careful it doesn’t ward off bright prospects who could significantly contribute to the UK – particularly as we’re in the process of rolling out productivity plans for the future. Future planning should encompass future prospects after all.

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