British Council director calls for ‘urgent review’ of visa policy (UK)

By John Morgan

The organisation charged with promoting British education overseas has rounded on the government over its student-visa changes, calling for an “urgent review” of the policy to avert damage to the economy and the possible closure of university departments. Jo Beall, director of education and society at the British Council, told Times Higher Education that the crackdown could result in a few more jobs for young Britons “flipping hamburgers and pulling pints”, but at a great cost. She made the remarks as the British Council sent research to the government on the US and Australian experience with student-visa restrictions – later relaxed in both countries after drops in international student numbers.

The report picks out the impending closure of the post-study work option for non-European Union students and tougher English-language requirements at the sub-degree level – with the latter “expected to have a negative impact on pathways leading to higher education”. It concludes that “recent immigration changes have managed to single out the UK as the country with the toughest immigration regime when compared [with] its competitors”, with the post-study work options in Australia, Canada and the US able to draw “genuine and career-driven students” away from the UK.

Dr Beall said the research showed that pathways to university and post-study work needed “urgent review…if we’re not going to undermine the economic benefit that higher education as an export sector brings”. The British Council study cites Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research estimating that UK education exports were worth £14.1 billion in 2008-09. Universities Australia estimated that student visa tightening cost Australia A$428 million (£292 million) in 2010, it notes.

Media reports present a government split between a Home Office intent on implementing the Conservative election commitment to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands and BIS ministers concerned about the impact of the visa policy on business and universities. The Home Office and UK Border Agency shared a “short-term” goal to reduce immigration, perceiving that international students are “taking British jobs”, Dr Beall argued. “The worst-case scenario is that these short-term gains – of a few more young people flipping hamburgers and pulling pints who are British – [come] at the cost of the strength of our industrial innovation, our research and development base, our reputation as a higher education provider, which is second in the world at the moment,” she said.

While welcoming the proposal by Damian Green, the immigration minister, to offer a limited visa option for overseas “graduate entrepreneurs”, she argued that a full post-study work option was vital. “It’s a pity in a way to dismantle something then replace it with a plethora of more complex legislation,” she said. Although the British Council was “respectful and supportive of the government’s concern to reduce the abuse of the system”, it had a “responsibility…when we have the evidence to make that evidence available to government”, she added.

On some postgraduate biotechnology and engineering courses in the UK, Dr Beall said, the proportion of non-EU students was as high as 90 per cent. “That means our students are being exposed to competition, to knowledge, to engagement and dialogue with international students; it means international students are paying to keep some of those departments alive,” she said. “If those departments die because they are not resourced…British students will have to go and study (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects abroad.”

Dr Beall highlighted the international nature of research: “We know that 70,000 patent applications in the US have been put in by teams that include international as well as American researchers. “That is more than the UK and the Bric [Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries put together.” She also pointed to Universities UK figures stating that more than 40 per cent of international students in UK higher education come via sub-degree courses here – the level targeted by the coalition. “Students come on a pathway,” Dr Beall said. “Universities are depending on that. The government has genuinely not understood how interconnected and interlinked the tertiary education sector is.”

Source: Times Higher Education