In the limelight: February 2020

February 3, 2020

With the announcement of the Graduate Immigration Route, the Government is removing one of the biggest barriers to talented international students coming to the UK. Richard Dawson looks at why this is important and hears from North East universities on the issue

The UK’s higher education sector has long been considered the best in the world, with Oxford and Cambridge regularly topping The Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

This year, it’s Oxford which takes the number one spot, closely followed by California Institute of Technology and Cambridge in third. The rest of the top ten are made up of American universities and as such, there’s something of an ongoing battle between the US and the UK for which country can claim to be the true bastion of global academic excellence.

There’s also another battle to attract the world’s international students. It’s a fight the US is winning, with almost 1.1 million foreign student enrolments in 2018, more than twice that of Britain in second with 506,000. That being said, the UK’s leading universities have a much higher proportion of overseas students than their US counterparts – 56 per cent of students at Imperial College London, for example, are international compared to just 20, 23 and 24 per cent at Yale, Stanford and Harvard, respectively.

What should concern British universities though, is that new destinations are becoming increasingly popular. In 2018, international student numbers grew by 13.52 per cent in Australia and 18.78 per cent in Canada. The UK figure was just 1.08 per cent for the same period. Moreover, a recent survey of international alumni by Cturtle found that Canada and New Zealand were the most popular for studying abroad and the UK was the least recommended. Part of the reason for this was because graduates found the UK was the most difficult market to find work and stay after graduation.

Attracting international students is one of the most important functions of a university, not only because of the extra revenue higher international fees bring in, but because of the talent and expertise that goes into the local economy.

When Theresa May was home secretary in 2012, she reduced the time available for overseas students to stay and find skilled work after graduation from two years to just four months. This was part of the coalition Government’s ambition to get net migration down to the tens of thousands, a target that has now been scrapped. The adverse effect of the reduction is that it has made the UK a much more unattractive offer for international students.

That is, until October last year, when the new Government confirmed the policy would be reversed. As the new decade gets underway, plans for the introduction of a Graduate Immigration Route are taking shape. This will enable students to remain in the UK for two years after completion of their studies.

Coming into effect in the summer of 2021, international graduates will now have more time to find a suitable job and transition into the skilled workforce. The announcement was welcomed by universities, which recognise the importance of attracting international talent and students who dream of attending one of the UK’s prestigious institutions.

The problem with the previous rules was that graduates had to find employment meeting the UK’s requirements for skilled immigration in an unrealistic timescale. It takes time to build up a network and find a job which both fully utilises the skills graduates have acquired and fills a gap in the UK labour market. Extending the period to two years should go some way to resetting the balance and ensuring we have a healthy pipeline of international students coming through in the future.

For the universities of the North East, attracting more international students is one of their key priorities. Rob Carthy, Northumbria University’s director of international development, is delighted about the introduction of the Graduate Immigration Route.

“It marks a softening of the stance with relation to international students, making the UK a more attractive and welcoming destination, as well as recognising that the opportunity to undertake post-study work is a key factor in international student decision-making,” he says.

“I’m sure that, once implemented, there will be an increase in the numbers of international students coming to Newcastle, bringing both an increase in inward investment to the city through tuition, housing and other areas, but also an increase in the skilled labour market.”

Having recently been ranked as number one on the International Student Barometer (ISB) survey for international student satisfaction, Teesside University pro-vice chancellor (international), Dr David Bell, also welcomes the news.

He says: “We are pleased to see the extension of the post-study work visa for our international graduates. This will provide more opportunities for them to connect with potential employers, who can in turn retain those skilled and talented graduates across the UK.

“International students make an important contribution to our region, both culturally and economically, and our university community benefits hugely from the rich diversity of perspective and experience our overseas students bring with them.”

Professor Richard Davies, pro-vice-chancellor (global) of Newcastle University, adds: “As an international university tackling global challenges through our teaching and research, we need different perspectives, outlooks, ideas, cultures and opinions.

“We are delighted that international students can now look for work for up to two years after their degree is completed. This makes our university and the UK as a whole a far more attractive proposition for the international students who are making one of life’s most significant, positive, life-changing decisions.”

Professor Claire O’Malley, pro-vice chancellor (global) at Durham University, also outlines how the changes will make the UK more competitive in the global marketplace.

“The two-year graduate route visa allows us to compete with universities in Canada, Australia and the US, and will enable us to continue to attract outstanding talent and potential employees to the North East,” she says.

“Post-Brexit, we hope that these students will open opportunities for local companies to trade in international markets.”

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