Welcome changes to immigration regulations but challenges remain

University challenges #1

There is no doubting the value of transnational education (TNE) to the UK and its HEIs. This includes not only the development of vital research links between UK institutions and their partners around the world but also key teaching and student exchange collaborations. Perhaps the most significant element for HEI’s is the recruitment of international students to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Recent information from Universities UK (International Facts and Figures 2019) highlights the scale of this with almost 460,000 international students, of which 320,000 were non-EU students.

In addition to the hugely significant academic, cultural and social benefits to the UK, there is a major economic benefit too. In a recent THE article, Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK chief executive, was quoted as saying “Evidence shows that international students bring significant positive social outcomes to the UK as well as £26 billion in economic contributions”. Notwithstanding this clear benefit to the economy, there have been significant challenges for HEIs wishing to recruit international students with the complexities of the immigration regime for incoming Non-EU students. To complicate things further, there is uncertainty about how this might impact on incoming EU students in the event of a no-deal BREXIT.

That said, the recent re-introduction of the post-study work (PSW) visa is a very welcome step in the right direction. The withdrawal of PSW visa in 2012 proved to be a huge disincentive for incoming international students and, together with a further tightening of the regulatory framework, it had a clear detrimental impact on the recruitment of international students. Australia, Canada and the US all benefitted from the UK’s withdrawal of the PSW visa route for students. Although the UK remains in the world ‘Top 10’ destinations for international students (second behind the US), it’s percentage change dropped to 0.3% compared to 13.9% for Australia, 10.4% for Canada and 7.1% for the US.

The re-introduction of the post-study work (PSW) visa route is a good thing and should help the UK to recover some of the ground that it has lost over the past 7 years. How much it will recover remains to be seen and will depend primarily on the UK government’s approach to ‘students as immigrants’ in the post BREXIT world. There is much work to be done to catch up and capitalise on the ‘new’ PSW visa arrangements.

However, it is important to remember that, despite this significant policy shift, the strict framework for student visas is still in place. In short, the pipeline for incoming international students is still being tightly controlled and the new arrangements will only apply to students at the end of this pipeline. HEIs will continue to have to exercise their extensive sponsor obligations and be able to evidence this to UKVI, should the need arise. The risks and costs associated with getting it wrong are still very high in terms of reputation and, ultimately, financial impact. This is especially the case at HEIs who rely heavily on international students to secure income targets.

Not that the introduction of the more stringent student visa regulatory framework has been all bad. It did remove some dodgy so-called ‘English language’ providers and it forced HEIs to focus more closely on their international student populations to assure their ‘engagement’ with their respective institutions. A very healthy ‘by-product’ of this was that institutions, especially those adopting the SEAtS Software ‘Student Success’ approach, developed a much better understanding of their international student cohorts and improved their ability to support these students through their studies. SEAtS Software enables HEIs to demonstrate clearly to UKVI that they are meeting their strict sponsor obligations; especially in terms of student engagement.

When the highly successful SEAtS approach is extended to the whole student population, there are enormous benefits that can accrue very quickly. These include improved retention and better student outcomes overall. SEAtS enable HEIs to gain a better understanding of all students, facilitating the development of genuine insights and wisdom across the whole student population. In short, it is an amazing win-win for those institutions and, more importantly, their students.

 

Philip Henry is a former U.K. University Registrar and Secretary with almost 40 years’ experience in higher education in the UK and overseas. He was an active member of the UK’s AHUA, ARC and AUA (a founding Executive Committee member) and AACRAO and ARUCC in North America. He is still engaged in the sector as a passionate advocate of initiatives to support student success and has submitted articles to AACRAO’s College and University quarterly journal on this subject.