Proposed new restrictions on student visas would result in "dire consequences" for the UK's universities, a report warns. A study for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) says the measures would cut the number of foreign students coming to UK universities, losing billions of pounds in income. The plans are better designed to cut recruitment than visa abuse, it adds.
The government said talented overseas students were vital to the economy. Its plans include reducing the number of foreign students studying below degree level, raising the students' language requirement and limiting their entitlement to work and bring their family to the UK. It also proposes to improve the accreditation process and inspections for education providers to weed out bogus colleges.
The report by Professor Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, points out that overseas students bring in vital income worth nearly £5bn a year in fees and off-campus expenditure. They are often charged much higher tuition fees than home students. "In a tricky funding period most universities plan to expand international numbers in the immediate future. The ability to do so reflects and enhances the reputation of UK higher education internationally," the report says. It also points out that many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses are only made viable by the presence of overseas students.
Although no overall targets have been set out in the Home Office proposals, the report says that had student immigration been pegged to existing targets since 2005-06, then the number of international students would have been cut by three-quarters. It also says the loss in fees alone would have been some £6bn - this rises to £12bn if off-campus expenditure is taken into account. "To implement the proposed measures as they stand would amount to a hostile act against Britain's universities," Prof Acton warns.
He also says that the plans to reduce the number of students studying below degree level will not only reduce fee income by about £1bn, but reduce the number coming to study as undergraduates. This is because of the impact the measures would have on so-called "pre-university pathway courses" which provide preparation for university study for large numbers of international students.
Prof Acton adds that raising the language requirement for overseas students would also hit the numbers of foreign students hard. He claims more than 40% of international students at UK universities come via a pre-university pathway course and that 70% of recruits to these courses would be barred by the language requirement change.
Such courses are described as "a necessary link in the chain of university recruitment", especially in non-Commonwealth countries where the norm is to leave school having completed only the equivalent of AS-level. The report says: "For recruitment from countries where English is not one of the official languages, combining academic preparation with intensive English language tuition from native speakers is essential. Sever the link and the damage inflicted on our universities will be severe."
It also adds that the policy is based on statistics that "are not fit for purpose". These are figures from the International Passenger Survey, which questions a small proportion of people leaving the UK. The government's Migration Advisory Committee has criticised the reliability of IPS figures, saying that they "massively undercount ex-students leaving the country".
Immigration Minister Damian Green said talented overseas students were vital to the UK economy but added that the country had to be more selective about who could come and how long they could stay. "Our proposals are targeted measures, which will seek to reduce abuse of the current system — mainly seen in those coming to study at lower levels and at private institutions of further education, and by increasing the quality of those who are able to use the student route. "The brightest and the best who have the greatest contribution to make to the UK will continue to be welcomed and we are working closely with the sector to ensure that the final proposals support this."
The director of Hepi, Bahram Bekhradnia, said: "This proposal, if implemented, will reverse what has become one of this country's most successful recent economic growth areas - one that contributes more than £5bn per year to the economy - and will seriously weaken the finances of our universities at a time when they are facing serious pressure because of public expenditure cuts."
Libby Aston, director of the University Alliance, said the policy on pre-university courses would have some serious unintended consequences for universities. She added: "These are not bogus language schools that we should be concerned about."