Quality, Quality, Quality: International Student Reform Plan

  • Election 24
  • Higher Education
  • Immigration

The Rt Hon Jo Johnson, King's College London 

In this piece, The Rt Hon Jo Johnson draws on immigration and higher education data to explore three reform measures for shoring up political support for international student recruitment. 

One of the biggest issues in the run-up to the next General Election will inevitably be immigration.

This week’s migration figures show net migration to the UK in the 12 months to June this year reached 672,000, while net migration last year was revised upwards to a record high of 745,000.

Alongside skills shortages in health and social care, one of the main drivers has been the underfunding of higher education, which has increased dependencies on the recruitment of fee-paying international students.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman has raised pressure for change by making clear that she wishes to reduce numbers by abolishing the Graduate Route, which the Conservatives introduced in 2019.

This allows overseas students to work for two years post-graduation (or three for those with PhDs) and fills a gap left by the abolition of the old post-study work offer by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2011.

Axing the Graduate Route would be a blunt response that would damage UK universities, reduce soft power and hit an export sector contributing more than £41bn a year to the economy, according to HEPI-led research.

Preserving the architecture of the Graduate Route, and confirming its place in our system for the long-term, is of vital importance to the competitiveness of UK universities in the international market.

The UK offer is already weaker in this respect than that of Australia and Canada, two of our main competitors.

Australia offers between two and four years for graduates and an additional two years for specific degrees in areas of verified skills shortage.

Canada’s system of Post Graduate Work Permits is tied to length of study, ranging from one to three years. Crucially, it can also lead to permanent residence pathways.

While abolition of the Graduate Route would be a clear mistake, there are sensible reforms that need to be made to maintain political support for international student recruitment.

A better approach would be for the Department for Education (DfE), working with Universities UK and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), to raise the quality of international student applications with reforms to three areas:

▪ Application fees:
Admissions offices in the UK are processing unprecedented volumes of applications from international students, often at a considerable expense. Yet many institutions are loath to consider one proven means of filtering out weak and unserious applicants: application fees. The DfE should require universities to charge an application fee for international students, bringing them in line with the practice of levying a small fee (£27.50) for domestic students applying through UCAS. This is in universities’ interests, since all the evidence is that higher application fees result in higher enrolment conversion rates, the benefits of which more than offset lost applications. The Government needs to help the sector adopt en bloc a sensible measure that institutions on their own may be reluctant to take for fear of putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

▪ Tuition fees paid upfront:
International students have traditionally had low non-continuation rates, but while this remains true for China it has started to change rapidly for students from India and Bangladesh, who now have drop out rates of around 25%. Requiring that tuition fees be paid wholly or at least in large part upfront would help weed out the minority of students who may plan to drop out and who may look at the price of a visa and deposit as a low-cost way of securing entry to the country. The DfE working with UKVI should consider requiring institutions to request tuition upfront when their international drop out rates exceed their B3 benchmarks for domestic students.

▪ Maintenance funds in escrow:
The DfE should require that the UKVI-mandated minimum maintenance funds – £1,334 per month (for up to 9 months) for courses in London and £1,023 per month (for up to 9 months) for courses outside London – be put in an interest-bearing escrow account with a recognised financial institution at the start of the year. This would borrow from Canada’s ‘guaranteed investment certificate’ (GIC) system. Such a system would raise the financial strength of international students as they would be able to draw down on their deposited financial requirement in instalments during the course of their studies. At the moment, international students only need to demonstrate that they have access to funds for a 28 day period. This has allowed unscrupulous agents to recycle loaned funds to multiple applicants, enabling many to enter the country without the funds they have claimed to possess and leading them in many cases to drop out or to work in excess of the permitted 20 hours a week. The Government may also need to review its maintenance funding requirements to reflect the current cost of living in the UK, so that international students don’t inadvertently find themselves in hardship through underfunding.

In an environment of mounting concern over immigration numbers, universities need to work with the Government to shore up political support for international student recruitment.

Adopting these three measures, all of them rooted in evidence, would help the sector withstand calls for the abolition of the Graduate Route in the heat of the election campaign.

About the author

The Rt Hon Jo Johnson is a specialist in education and technology policy with roles at a number of global universities and board positions at world-leading companies.

He is President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, as well as a Fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London and a Member of the Council of the Dyson Institute for Engineering and Technology.

He serves as Chairman of the Advisory Board of ApplyBoard, the world’s leading platform for international student recruitment.

He is a Member of the House of Lords and a Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

A member of Parliament between 2010-2019, The Rt Hon Jo Johnson held prominent positions in Government under three Prime Ministers, including Head of the No10 Downing Street Policy Unit and Minister of State, attending Cabinet, for Universities, Science & Innovation.

Image credit: Chris Boland, Unsplash