Speaking exclusively to Concrete, Vice-Chancellor Edward Acton bemoaned the inclusion of international students in the coalition government’s efforts to reduce net migration into the United Kingdom.
“Attempting to limit the number of international students essentially constitutes welcoming them in with one hand pushing them out with the other,” said the Vice-Chancellor. “University slots should be lifted out of this calculation; by all means look at flows of people coming to work, flows of people coming for family reasons, maybe the flows of non-university students, but university students tend to leave when their visas run out.”
During the UK Border Agency’s Consultation on Tier 4 Student Immigration rules, which took place during the winter, a number of measures had been proposed which could have resulted in a significant cut-back in international numbers, and greater restrictions on international students once they were at British universities.
Acton believes that the consultation in the winter had an effect on how British universities are viewed abroad. “The curfuffle around the consultation and very negative foreign reporting of the government’s proposals have had quite a bad effect.
“In many countries we curtailed it and the effect hasn’t been too bad, but I expect it to have an impact.”
When asked whether he believed international students would be less likely to choose British universities, Acton said he believed there would be a marginal dip in applications.
“This will occur especially at Masters level and especially from the Indian subcontinent, where a very important magnet was easy access to a period of working after you graduate. That has got tighter, and as a result the reporting of the consultation was the most negative in India.”
UEA has made a clear committment to increasing the number of international students at the University, particularly with the INTO Building, where 800 students are housed to complete a pre-university year, which replaces the final year of study in their home countries. Therefore it is unsurprising that the international debate is one in which Acton has campaigned heavily.
“My response to the government’s proposals was parliament-based, talking to key MPs. Many Liberal Democrat back-benchers were very sympathetic, as were most Conservative back-benchers,” said Acton.
“We staged various press conferences, and I wrote a pamphlet on the issue.
I spoke to the Home Office Immigration Minister, and had a few interesting discussions. This contributed towards a lot of these proposals being significantly altered in a favourable direction.”
With a significant proportion of universities relying heavily on international student numbers, Acton’s concerns seem to mirror those being expressed at other British institutions.
“It worries me that the British government has very specific targets, that they will reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. Looking at the bigger picture, if Britain is looking like it doesn’t really want international students that would be very dangerous.
We are keen to urge the government not to do it again.”
In terms of the potential financial impact of the government’s proposals, Acton had the following to say. “International students are an important part of the university system in this country, and if they get cut, the whole thing rocks financially. The UK Council for International Student Affairs has estimated that international student contribute £2.5 billion to the UK economy in fees alone.
The initial government proposal was that no prospective students could come to study in the UK without having language level B2, defined as a considerable, clear mastery of English. Whilst this hasn’t been adopted, they would have, in Acton’s words, “decimated the flow of those coming into pre-university colleges detrimentally, and therefore decimated the numbers entering at degree level.”
With UEA’s INTO Centre constituting the above, it is clear to see why the campaign has raged in Parliament against the proposals. Estimates put international fees at constituting between two and 14 per cent of the income of 80 per cent of British universities.
With the two-year work visa not impossible to get, but significantly harder, it remains to be seen whether UEA’s targets of increasing international intake year-on-year will be met, or whether the watered-down government proposals will have the feared impact after all.