International students are turning away from the U.K. because of Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to curb migration, university and business leaders say, damaging the economy and raising the risk that some courses may close.
With the Conservative government renewing a pledge to cut net migration below 100,000 a year from levels of over three times that, students from outside the European Union face tougher visa requirements and increased barriers to entering Britain’s jobs market after their studies. The government has no control over immigration from the EU.
“These highly mobile entrepreneurial people will simply go elsewhere,” Professor Julius Weinberg, vice-chancellor of Kingston University in southwest London, said in an e-mailed statement. Parts of the government seem “determined to damage” higher education, he said, “by sending out messages that they are going to make it harder for international students to come here, and they are going to make them feel less welcome when they are here.”
International students in London alone add a net benefit of 2.3 billion pounds ($3.5 billion) a year to the economy through tuition fees and spending, data from business group London First show. In July, Business Secretary Sajid Javid called for those studying in Britain to lose the right to stay once they’ve finished their courses. The approach contrasts with that of Canada or Australia, where post-study routes to work are part of the offer to students, according to Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance group of 18 colleges.
“It has the potential to damage the competitiveness of the U.K.,” Ansell said in an interview, citing government rhetoric aimed at dissuading immigration as a cause for declining numbers of foreign students from India. “We rely on skills -- particularly high-level skills -- in order to compete internationally.”
There was an 12 percent decline in the number of students from India in 2013-14 compared with the previous year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
From November, a university student taking a nine-month course in London will need at least 11,385 pounds ($17,300) of funds to gain a student visa, compared with 2,040 pounds now. Other hurdles include proposals to increase the minimum wage level for Tier 2 visas, a program non-EU students are typically hired onto after completing their study, and requirements for some students to return home before applying for work visas.
The U.K. attracted around 310,000 non-EU citizens for study in 2013-14, data from HESA show. This is set to change “dramatically,” according to Josephine Goube, co-managing director at European visa advice provider Migreat.
Until a few months ago, about half of student-related queries handled by Migreat referred to gaining U.K. student visas. Now, Goube said, about 80 percent of inquiries are for alternative study options in Europe, particularly France and Germany.
Lower student numbers could mean some courses in science, technology, engineering and math will no longer be viable, according to Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills at the Confederation of British Industry. This would also make them unavailable for U.K. students. Over 40 percent of postgraduate students in Britain are from abroad, according to the U.K. Council for International Student Affairs.
“Students should be able to stay in the U.K. for a reasonable period while applying for skilled work after graduating to help tackle the U.K. skills shortage,” said Carberry. The latest employer survey by the lobby group identified the skills gap as the “most significant worry” for companies. The Home Office turned down applications by skilled non-EU workers for visas for the first time in June.
“The signals going out to China, to the U.S., to India is that we’re not as international talent-friendly as we would like to be,” said Russell Shaw, founder of London Tech Advocates, which promotes the capital’s technology sector.
Job website Adzuna typically hosts around 30,000 IT job adverts in London at any one time, he said. By contrast, only 5,383 pupils studied computing for their school-leaving exams in 2015 across the U.K., data from the Joint Council for Qualifications show.
“Why are we sending these adverse signals about immigration when we just don’t have enough of our own talent here to fill the job vacancies?,” Shaw said.