The British government is seeking to increase the number of international students attending higher education in the UK by nearly a third to 600,000 in the coming decade, according to an education strategy unveiled on Saturday which contains only modest changes to visa rules.
The objective to raise foreign student numbers from 460,000 today is part of efforts to significantly boost annual education exports from £20bn to £35bn by 2030. The revenues are generated through fees, the activities of British schools abroad and support for sales by UK-based educational technology companies.
However, the new plan offers the right for students to only work for six months after undergraduate and masters’ degrees and 12 months for doctoral students, falling short of the conditions offered to students in other countries increasingly competing for international students led by the US, Canada and Australia.
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of leading research-based universities, said: “We have asked for much more ambitious post-study visas to make sure we are competitive. That would recognise foreign students’ value to the economy and society beyond tuition fees.”
The visa extension proposals, already included in the government’s recent immigration white paper, extend the right to work from four months currently for all levels of undergraduate and post-graduate study. They will also be able to apply for a skilled work visa three months before their course ends.
The new strategy also pledged to help review processes for conducting interviews, to ease the application process for international students.
Damian Hinds, education secretary, said: “The UK’s education system is world-leading and its reputation is the envy of many countries around the globe. As we prepare to leave the EU it is more important than ever to reach out to our global partners and maximise the potential of our best assets — that includes our education offer and the international students this attracts.”
Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, said: “This is all welcome stuff, including the new targets. But it is guaranteed that the targets won’t be hit unless there are further policy changes.” He said the UK needed to allow at least two years of post-study work to be competitive.
He added that the government already in 2015 set educational exports targets of £30bn to be reached by 2020. “Every government department will need to put its shoulder to the wheel if the new targets are to be hit and the Home Office will have to become more relaxed about international students.”
The government strategy also includes efforts to encourage British training companies to export, the appointment of an Education Champion and education bids to a £5m challenge fund to support British exports.