UK curbs on international student visas would be ‘act of economic self-harm’

Vice-chancellors fear billions of pounds could be lost because of new restrictions on international students, the result of internal government battles over immigration policy.

University leaders have been briefed that No 10 may side with the Home Office in supporting restrictions on international students applying to UK universities that could amount to “an act of economic self-harm”, despite strong opposition from ministers and officials from various departments.

It is understood the Department for Education, the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade are all opposed to the move.

Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of Universities UK group (UUK), has told vice-chancellors that the government was “revisiting ways to reduce net migration”, with the future of the graduate student work visa in the spotlight.

The visa allows international students to work for two years after graduation, and has been credited with a huge boost to student recruitment from India and Nigeria since 2021.

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Prof Hugh Brady, president of Imperial College London, said any attempt to cut international student numbers would damage universities and have a wider impact that he likened to limiting the number of tourists allowed to visit the UK.

“I hate to reduce the debate over international students to economics because they enrich our universities and cities in so many other ways. Having said that, in purely economic terms, cutting their numbers is nonsensical.

“A single cohort of international students is worth a net £25.9bn to the UK economy. The government’s own export strategy aims to increase that to £35bn by 2030. They fuel the economy, create jobs and support livelihoods,” Brady told the Guardian.

The economic impact is likely to take on greater urgency after the International Monetary Fund’s forecast that the UK economy is likely to shrink in 2023 and for growth to remain the lowest among industrialised countries into 2024.

Brady said that the “overwhelming majority” of international students left the UK after graduation, with the 97.5% compliance rate being the highest of any visa category, and almost all those who remained doing so legally.

“Large numbers of degree programmes in science and engineering would not be viable without international students. Cutting international students will reduce choice and quality for UK students, and damage our skills pipeline in key areas,” Brady said.

“Tourists visit briefly, bring their families, fuel the economy and go home. Would we ever limit their numbers? International students stay longer, sometimes bring their families, fuel the economy and go home. Why limit their numbers?”

One vice-chancellor close to the discussions said it was “not clear” what the outcome would be, with conflicting views inside No 10 as well as among ministers. “But it is more dangerous than any time I can remember. This would be a gross act of economic self-harm for the country, and disproportionately damage places where the university is the main generator of growth,” the vice-chancellor said.

One option said to be favoured by Suella Braverman, the home secretary, is shortening the graduate work visa period from two years to as little as six months. That would make the UK a less attractive option for students than competitors such as the US and Canada. Australia – which runs a stringent immigration policy – allows international students to work for up to four years after graduation, and bring immediate family members.

Other changes being considered include limiting the number of dependents such as spouses and children allowed to accompany international students, and ending students’ ability to switch from study to work visas if they find a job.

Related: Longer work visa could tempt more foreign students to UK, survey finds

Universities UK says it has been “in constant conversation with officials across several departments” since becoming aware of the changes being pursued by the Home Office to reduce the UK’s net migration numbers. Its efforts have been focused on defending the graduate work visa.

​Stern told UUK members last week that no decisions had been made and that conversations between No 10 and government departments were “ongoing”.

A ​g​overnment spokesperson said:​ ​“We keep all our immigration policies under constant review to ensure they best serve the country and reflect the public’s priorities.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell group of research universities, which includes Manchester and University College London, said: “Introducing new restrictions on international students and their dependants risks damaging the UK’s prospects for economic growth, with the impact being felt across the whole of the country.”

Analysis commissioned by the group found that each international student generates £132,000 in economic benefits, averaging £40m a year for each parliamentary constituency.