Universities Minister David Willetts outlined ambitious plans for the UK to help meet a “surge in demand” for higher education globally at the Embassy Education Conference, but negative perceptions over strict visa rules may deter foreign students, diplomats warned.
Speaking to an audience of diplomats representing nearly 100 different missions and international directors of 50 of the top universities, colleges and schools, Mr Willetts said student numbers globally were predicted to reach almost 200 million over the next decade, according to UNESCO estimates.
“In this 50th anniversary year of the publication of the Robbins Report, which shaped an ambitious growth agenda for higher education in Britain, I think the world is going through its Robbins moment and so many education ministers that I meet want to see a surge in growth of higher education in their countries.”
Growing capacity globally
He added that Britain stood ready to alleviate capacity constraints which may otherwise hold countries back in offering tertiary education to their citizens.
A new Education UK Unit dedicated to the expansion of British education services overseas has been established as a joint BIS/UKTI initiative.
The Minister highlighted three ways in which Britain could increase the provision of higher education globally. The first is through trans-national education (TNE), where three quarters of UK universities were already offering in-country British degrees in satellite campuses or partnership with local universities in more than 200 countries and territories. Around half a million students now obtain a British degree abroad through trans-national education, which is 100,000 more than those travelling to Britain to study.
Secondly, Britain could help “grow capacity” through “system to system” provision. This could include a variety of services, such as training for teachers and vice chancellors, help with university architecture, legal services and education software development.
British universities remain open to international students, Mr Willetts added, stressing that there was “no cap” on the number of genuine students coming to the UK. There are currently 400,000 international students at British universities, representing 13 per cent of the internationally mobile student population.
Visa rules a deterrent
However, diplomats from non-EU countries warned the Minister that more restrictive regulations were a deterrent and an “effective cap” on the student numbers, particularly those from the subcontinent where numbers have declined by as much as 25 per cent.
Also addressing the conference was the Chief Executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, who said universities were “concerned” by these statistics and were looking into the underlying causes.
She said changes to immigration rules and damaging incidents such as the suspension of the Metropolitan University licence last year had created a false impression that foreign students were not welcome, which needed to be addressed urgently.
Ms Dandridge added that the introduction of “credibility interviews” in the visa application process was causing “tremendous uncertainty” and called on the Home Office to provide clarity on what the expectations were in these interviews.
A new bond scheme, being piloted in ‘high-risk’ countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria and Sri Lanka – in which visitors may be required to pay £3000 in addition to their visa fee, was also a worry.
Ms Dandridge said UUK was seeking assurances from the Home Office that student visitors would be exempted.
Ms Dandridge urged the Home Office for a period of “policy stability” on student visas. “The confusion is almost causing more damage than any of the changes that have indeed been quite detrimental,” she warned.
Explaining Home Office policy was Jeremy Oppenheim, who said the new rules were intended to protect genuine students and the reputation of UK education providers and root out “unscrupulous education providers”.
A further aim of the new rules was to ensure that study remained primarily a temporary migration route, and not a step towards permanent settlement.
He added that visa applications for universities had increased and that the most significant drops in visa applications had been to further education and private colleges and language schools where abuse had been prevalent.
Oppenheim said the rules – including credibility interviews – should not pose a problem to genuine students. He added that it was up to education providers and the Home Office to find ways to tackle the negative perceptions of the visa system.
“The message that the visa system is somehow difficult is one that we can all challenge and think more about together,” he said.