Foreign students bring millions of pounds to our economy. But are we doing enough to encourage them to come here? Chris Bond reports.
Education has become big business these days, especially when it comes to attracting foreign university students to the UK.
Earlier this month research was published showing that international students in Sheffield were worth around £120m a year to the city’s economy, while the same study revealed that 8.9 per cent of foreign students go on to work in Yorkshire, with an additional 10.7 per cent getting jobs elsewhere in the UK, bringing fresh skills and talent to the workplace.
Given such huge financial benefits it’s perhaps not surprising that our universities are keen to entice more talented overseas students. Many of those who come here are studying so-called Stem subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths - and play a key role in plugging acknowledged skills gaps in the UK workforce.
Despite their importance to the UK and our connections around the world, there are concerns among some education chiefs, politicians and business leaders that tougher new visa controls could deter foreign students from coming here.
Since last year, all institutions that want to sponsor non-EU students for a visa must be accredited as “highly trusted”, while potential entrants are also required to speak a higher standard of English.
The “post-study work route” to staying on has also been closed, unless graduates have an offer of one of a list of skilled jobs.
It’s all part of a crackdown against bogus students coming into the country. The Government has made a big play of reducing the number of immigrants coming to the UK but has been criticised for refusing to remove foreign students from its net migration target.
Net migration figures actually fell last year, although officials say this is largely down to a drop in foreign students fuelling concerns that many people have been put off coming to the UK.
The coalition has attempted to allay such fears and in February David Cameron led a 100-strong trade mission to India during which he went out of his way to woo prospective students, saying there was “no limit” to the number of Indians who would be allowed to study at UK universities and stay on in graduate-level jobs after they qualified.
But while the Government has been criticised for sending out mixed messages over international students, higher education bosses are unequivocal about the benefits they bring.
Leeds University’s vice-chancellor Professor Michael Arthur and the university union’s education officer Josh Smith have written a joint letter to Home Secretary Theresa May calling on her to reconsider her position and remove international students from the net immigration target.
They have also sent letters calling on the city’s eight MPs to lobby for this change.
At Leeds University, there are more than 6,000 international students from 130 different countries and Jacqui Brown, head of the university’s international office, says they boost the local economy.
“Just like British students they will spend money in local shops, restaurants and leisure facilities. International students also visit the region’s tourist attractions, use its airports and transport network, as will their families who come to visit on holiday.”
But she says they bring more than just economic benefits. “Many of our students go on to set up their own companies or work for leading multinationals. Their fondness for Leeds can lead to links with local businesses, bringing investment into the region long after their studies here. Our graduates raise the profile of Leeds around the world and act as goodwill ambassadors for our city and region as well as for its universities.”
She says British students benefit, too. “They get to work with and befriend students from right around the world. They exchange languages, learn about different cultures and gain an insight into the global market place.
“This improves their employment prospects, both in the UK and abroad, because businesses appreciate their awareness of different markets and customers. Our graduates who go on to be lawyers, politicians, diplomats, scientists are able to forge new links and break down borders by using the knowledge they gained by having global connections at university.”
Indonesian student Steven Marcelino is in the final year of his international business and finance degree at Leeds University. When he first arrived in West Yorkshire he spoke little English and had to adapt to a completely different culture thousands of miles away from his family home in East Java.
But three years on and his language skills have improved and he’s a Leeds University Union cultural representative and last month helped organise the World Unite Festival at the university.
He believes that living and studying in Yorkshire has given him greater opportunities than if he had remained in his own country. “It’s made me more adaptable because I’ve come to a totally different culture and I think it has made me more employable.”
The 20 year-old, who shares a house with fellow students in the city, says the UK was an attractive place to come and study. “In Indonesia a lot of people go to Australia because it’s closer. But the UK was attractive to me because it offered me a fast track university course that I could do in three years, whereas back home it would be four years and a lot longer, too, in the United States or Australia.”
He says studying in England has given him opportunities he wouldn’t have been able to experience elsewhere. “What I like about UK universities is that you have abundant opportunities to try new things. At Leeds University you’ve got 300 societies where you can give something a go. I couldn’t do skiing back home, but I can here.”
He talks fondly of his time in Leeds and says he’s been made to feel very welcome, but admits the perception of the UK among his peers back home is less favourable. “In terms of visas and immigration the UK is still very tough and that’s what puts a lot of people off, but when you get here you realise it is actually very welcoming.”
It isn’t cheap, though. It costs homegrown students £9,000 a year to study in the UK whereas this figure can more than double for those from outside the EU.
“We pay a lot more to study here,” says Marcelino. “Leeds is my second home so I spend a lot of money here. But international students don’t like to be seen as this cash cow that produces lots of financial benefits, because I would argue there are much more non-financial benefits we can offer in the short term and the long term.”
When he finishes his course in July he plans to return home to Indonesia and eventually hopes to set up his own business. But at the same time he sees himself as an ambassador for Leeds. “If someone is studying business then I would recommend the UK because it’s an important financial hub and the network I’ve built up through the business school has been very important. This network will help me in my future career,” he says.
“I have made good friends here and I will definitely recommend people to come to Leeds because it has been a brilliant experience.”