In the post-Brexit landscape whose shape was barely glimpsed in G20 discussions at Hangzhou, one thing is clear: soon we’ll have to stop waffling about trade deals and start pushing British products the world wants to buy. One such is education, at our universities, independent schools and English-language colleges — an export sector calculated in 2011 by the now defunct Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to be worth £17.5 billion.
Not only does this sector attract foreign exchange, plug funding gaps for cash-strapped universities and support thousands of jobs, it also lays the ground for future relationships with students who return home to embark on business careers. And as the global population of international students grows by 6 per cent a year, it’s a great ‘soft power’ opportunity to bolster British influence around the world.
George Osborne’s Treasury recognised this and argued that foreign students should still be made welcome. But under the home secretaryship of Theresa May — as part of a wider ‘clampdown’ so ineffective that net migration actually doubled — UK visas granted to non-EU foreign students actually fell by 6 per cent a year, to 187,000 in 2014. Behind this were two much-bandied claims: that many colleges were ‘bogus’, and that up to 90,000 non-EU students a year were outstaying their visas.
A report this June by the campaigning organisation ExEdUK pointed out that of the more than 800 colleges which lost their licences to sponsor international students, many fewer deserved the ‘bogus’ label: lots were ‘legitimate, quality-assured institutions who have found the sponsorship compliance system too complex’. And Destination Education, published this week by the IPPR thinktank, concludes that the 90,000 figure for overstayers is ‘not reliable enough to be used as a guide for policy’: the number here after five years might be less than 40,000.
But in the anti-immigration climate of the Brexit vote, 40,000 is still a big number.