Dr Annette Bramley, director of the N8 Research Partnership
Universities across the UK have long been enriched by the contribution of international students. From the UK’s status as a global research leader to the economic backing their presence offers our institutions, international students are a vital part of the UK higher education ecosystem. Today’s announcement that foreign postgraduate students on non-research courses will no longer be able to bring family members to the UK is therefore hugely disappointing.
We recognise the government’s commitment to reducing undocumented migrant numbers. But depriving international students of the opportunity to bring their families during their period of study will only serve the purpose of denying students – particularly those with young families and especially women – a key form of support that could harm their own studies and, collectively as a policy, the social and economic outputs of the institutions as whole.
This policy perhaps reflects a misunderstanding of how universities contribute to local and national economies. It is therefore vital that those of us working in higher education continue to make the case that our sector is an export industry, bolstered by the presence of international students.
For example, in the Northern Powerhouse, the universities of the N8 Research Partnership and beyond contribute more than £13bn every year to the economy of the UK and support over 233 thousand jobs in the North of England.
The high concentration of research-intensive universities with world-leading capabilities in the region, as well as the capacity to train students with higher level skills is a differentiator for northern competitiveness globally.
The 2020-21 cohort of international students starting courses in the North will produce an estimated net economic benefit of £7.2bn through the duration of their studies. Therefore, the presence of international students is something that can enrich and enhance places across the UK economically, as well as socially and intellectually.
Indeed, international students with dependents will actually contribute more to the economy due to increasing expenditure within the UK, primarily in the places where they are studying.
The government is right to be concerned about illegal immigration, but international students and their families are not illegal immigrants. They are talented people that contribute to the UK economy. The fact that some of these people have dependents is again, not illegal. Russell Group data shows that those on study visas are 97.5% compliant in leaving when their right to remain expires, further illustrating that illegal immigration from international students is not a major issue – and a completely separate one to that of undocumented migration via unsafe routes.
At a time when universities are key to the fulfilment of several government missions – from the UK becoming a scientific superpower to the Investment Zones being launched in the North and Midlands – the N8 hopes the government will reconsider this policy. Immigration statistics related to international students could usefully be rethought to provide transparent accurate data and reflect the economic export impact of our excellent higher education sector in the UK.