Closed for business? The UK needs more foreign students

Heathrow Immigration QueuesConflating international students’ use of the health service with so-called ‘health tourism’ sends out the wrong message to prospective students.

The government’s new Immigration Bill, according to immigration minister Mark Harper will:

Stop migrants using public services to which they are not entitled, reduce the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK and make it easier to remove people who should not be here.

The measures focus on enforcement and clamping down. They include a requirement for temporary migrants, such as overseas students, to make a contribution to the National Health Service to prevent so-called “health tourism”.

International students make up around half of all migrants coming to the UK. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, they contributed £13.1 billion to the national economy in 2011.

They do use health services from time to time during their stay in the UK and so it does seem reasonable to introduce a levy at the point of entry equivalent to that of our global competitors, many of whom require international students to pay for private health insurance. This is what the government has proposed and IPPR has recommended this as a fair approach. After all if you pay in, you should be able to take out.

But the government should do much more to stress that this is not intended as a deterrent for international students – education exports are the UK’s fifth largest services export, ahead of both insurance services, and computer and information services.

A more restrictive approach to international students in the UK is sending out a negative message about the UK as a study destination.

We don’t feel welcome – Why aspiring students are thinking twice about the UK

Britain losing ground in foreign enrolments

Headlines such as those above are illustrative of a climate where an increasing number of international students feel that the UK is ‘closed for business’.

The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, described how:

There are lots of perception issues particularly in India where the message has got back that the British do not want overseas students. Numbers have fallen sharply and students have gone off to the States and Australia.

Ultimately, it is not possible for the government to both cut net migration and grow the international education sector at the same time. The UK should be working harder to attract foreign students so that we can maintain and enhance our place in a competitive global market.

Image: Kevin Anderson CC 2.0

* Alice Sachrajda is a Research Fellow at IPPR

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Jonathan Brown 12th Oct '13 - 7:10pm

    Quite agreed. I think it’s become – or will become? – party policy now to separate the single figure of ‘immigrants’ into different groups for the purposes of counting. So foreign students should be seen as distinct from ‘immigrants’. That might help discussions around this difficult subject at least.

    It’s stupid on so many levels to discourage foreign students. As well as the financial contribution they make (and the part that plays in propping up our university sector in particular), there’s the cultural benefits they bring (not least to the British students they study alongside), and the ‘soft power’ that the UK gains from having a network of people living all over the world who have links with us due to their time in education here.

  • Andrew Colman 13th Oct '13 - 2:42pm

    Kerbing foreign students is one of the most stupid thing this or any other government has done or tried to do, all to placate a xenophobic low IQ media

    Overseas Students are not “scroungers”, they are “customers” of one of Britains greatest Exports , Academic excellence.

    Government policy is like someone standing at the door to a Tesco suppermarket vetting customers, forcing them to queue up and sending some away saying we don’t want your custom here

  • Apart from the Tories is there another Centre-Right party in the world which hates foreigners so much that it will harm its country’s service industries so much (by turning away overseas students) in order to be able to say that it is reducing net immigration?

  • Jonathan raises a very valid point, namely why aren’t student numbers already being broken out? Particularly given Andrew’s observation that they are customers of our education services.

    Given the requirements on universities concerning foreign students, of all the various immigration measures this should be an exact annual number, which I would assume the DfE would have. Yes we don’t necessary have exit numbers but we do at least have annual new student and returning student numbers.

    Once we separate out this group of people, we can start treating them accordingly, including special dispensations such as access to the NHS.

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