Visa uncertainty leaves fate of London's universities 'in the balance', Government warned

Foreign students contribute twice the amount to the UK economy than resident Britons, according to London Higher (PA Wire)
Foreign students contribute twice the amount to the UK economy than resident Britons, according to London Higher (PA Wire)

A threatened crackdown on graduate visas would hit London universities particularly hard, higher education chiefs warned, stressing that foreign students contribute twice the amount to the UK economy than resident Britons.

London Higher, which represents more than 50 universities in the capital, added its voice to recent warnings from institutions in Scotland and northern England as it cautioned: “The fate of London’s universities hangs in the balance.”

Its chief executive, Dr Diana Beech, said: “Despite being the envy of the world and a key source of skills and jobs across the region, London’s universities are facing an uphill battle to balance the books following years of frozen domestic student fees, anti-London funding formulas and tightening immigration measures.”

The Cabinet is reviewing the current post-study work visa, which lets international students stay in the UK for two years after graduation.

Rishi Sunak insists that universities must serve as centres of learning for the “the best and the brightest”, not as centres for back-door immigration. But to the disappointment of Conservative Right-wingers, the Government is reportedly shying away from taking a severe line.

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron told peers on Tuesday that there was “no limit” on the number of international students that can come as long as they have an English-language qualification, stressing the “soft power” benefits it gives to Britain.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Sunak was challenged by SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn over whether he agreed with Lord Cameron’s belief that any restrictions on graduate visas will lead to job losses and university closures.

The PM replied: “The Foreign Secretary also said that the levels of legal migration to this country are too high, and that’s what I believe also, which is why it is right that we are taking decisive action to bring the numbers down.

“And that plan is working. In the first three months of this year, the visas issued are down by 25%, migration is on its way to being returned to more sustainable levels.”

However, Ms Beech cautioned: “Now is not the time to play politics with one of the country’s greatest export industries and national assets. Restricting the graduate route won’t get us any closer to meeting the pledge to ‘stop the boats’.

“All it will do is ‘stop the hopes’ of domestic students, employers and local economies as international students take their skills, talents and cash elsewhere."

The Government has already limited the ability of foreign students to bring relatives with them, but has been looking at further action amid pressure to cut record overall numbers of immigrants ahead of an election this year.

New statistics on long-term migration are due out on Thursday, and ministers are expected to announce their response after the Migration Advisory Committee found no evidence of widespread abuse of the graduate visa route.

The committee, whose findings inform Government targets for visa allocations in key sectors, warned last week that some university courses would become “less financially viable” if the number of international students is cut.

London Higher stressed that one-third of all international students - 179,000 - who come to the UK study in London and that their fees help to subsidise those paid by British students.

The net economic impact of the 2021/22 cohort of international students in London on the UK economy came to £9.59billion, equating to an average net impact in London of £131million per constituency, the lobby group said.

The net impact includes their higher fees and spending on UK services including accommodation, and translates to £1,040 per resident, which the group said is “almost double the contribution per member of the resident population nationally”.

Their spending benefits not just traditional Russell Group universities in London but smaller institutes such as training academies and music conservatoires.

Citing data from the Migration Observatory, it said 15 per cent or 52,500 of students who arrived in 2021 went on to obtain a work visa - but as many as 80 per cent return to their home countries after graduation.

Some observers are urging the PM to simply omit international students from Britain’s net migration data, given that most of them go home eventually. That would bring the UK into line with the practice in Australia, Canada and the United States.