Let’s go fly a kite: International

This blog, co-authored by IHE’s Director of Policy and Development, Joy Elliott-Bowman, was first published on the Wonkhe website.


Multiple-level study visas

Joy Elliott-Bowman – Director of Policy and Development, Independent Higher Education

For every course an international student wishes to study in the UK they will need to apply for a new visa. This includes students moving from school to university, college to university or those applying for PG study. It also includes many studying an English language programme before study or a foundation programme to prepare them for university. Every visa requires an application fee, an NHS surcharge, a new biometric residence permit, and in some cases, additional costs such as English language tests or re-tests, travel to visa centres, additional interviews and even travel home as some students will not be able to apply from the UK. To reduce the bureaucratic burden on the state and student of all these processes, New Zealand has introduced a pilot programme which would allow students a single visa for multiple levels of study, even across multiple institutions.

The NZ model aims to attract more students to study at multiple levels while also reducing cost and burden for the institution, student and government. It is estimated (by foundation degree providers, college and school groups) that over 50% of international students studying in higher education in the UK will already have taken a prior course of study before their degree. If the NZ model were implemented in the UK it could significantly reduce visa cost and burden across the process, encourage more study in UK schools, colleges and pathway providers, with more of these students staying on to study at university, and even encourage more students to study both UG and PGT degrees in the UK (40% of all UK PGT students are from outside the EU).

The UK offers more pathway courses than any other country in the world, so this is a model that’s working for us. Our independent schools are regarded as high quality and a pathway to UK universities, and our college-university partnerships to support student success and progression are already a key part of the UK HE landscape for domestic students. More international students would enhance and expand these offers. The UK is more set up for a visa of this type than New Zealand is. It’s a wonder we didn’t think of this first.


Reduce overseas fees

Hugh Jones – HE consultant

It is a truism that UK universities benefit from overseas students. The diverse student population provides huge opportunities for learning; connections made benefit students and staff throughout their lives, and the UK gains soft power. And the huge benefit, of course, is the financial gain from overseas tuition fee income, which amounted to almost £4.7 billion in 2016-17. That’s 13% of the total sector income.

It’s instructive to look back to when policy was changed to require universities to charge the full cost of teaching overseas students. The House of Lords debate is illuminating: on 12 December 1979, Lord Gladwyn held that “it is obvious that … this will result in a heavy fall in the total number of students. It is impossible to argue the contrary.” Impossible perhaps to argue, but the facts (and the money!) said otherwise.

So maybe it’s time to let money make its mind up again and look at the downside of high overseas fees. Many overseas students think (reasonably) that universities regard them as a cash cow. And some programmes – particularly taught postgraduate – are composed almost entirely of overseas students, which damages the value proposition of UK higher education. It’s no Brideshead if you and all of your classmates are from the same town in China.

If differential fees were no longer permitted, all students would be of equal value to their university. A blight on universities’ habitual value of fairness would be cleaned. The UK’s soft power would grow. And, post-Brexit, a tariff barrier to our exporting education would be removed.

Would the government enable this? Removing the fee cap as part of Augar would help, creating a genuinely open market and enabling universities to balance their books. Relaxing student visa restrictions, to enable free recruitment of overseas students, would also help. And the prize? A business model which doesn’t exploit one group of students compared to another.

  • On 8th January 2019