The UK has a long and successful history of excellence in higher education (HE), and universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and the colleges of the University of London are elite brands in this market. In fact, the UK has the 2nd highest number of universities in the top 100, after the USA and thus it should be no surprise that after the USA, the UK has the second highest proportion of international students and the highest amount in Europe. The other big European players have traditionally lagged far behind the UK in terms of numbers, however, as the UK tightens up labour and immigration laws, this proud place seems tenuous, and the rest of the continent are happy to roll out the red carpet and attract international students to their institutions instead.

As part of the coalition governments clampdown on immigration, universities are losing their ability to process student visas, making the process much more time consuming and complicated. At the same time, the nature of the visa system itself has been altered, and unless the international students can find a job from a list of government approved professions immediately after they have finished their studies, they will be required to return home. On top of this, there has been on-going negative rhetoric from the government in regards to immigration, with words like “leechers” being espoused by prominent politicians such as Boris Johnson. However, until the last few months the consequences of this dramatic shift by the government have not been apparent, but now we are seeing some troubling trends.

In a recent survey carried out for the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) the number of Indian students studying in the UK fell by almost 23.5% and as one of the worlds largest and fastest growing economies is a key area the UK would like to see growth in. Indian students, speaking at an international university fare in Dubai cited visa restrictions and the negative rhetoric making them feel ‘unwelcome’ as their reasons for choosing to go else where. Similarly, the director-general of the Russell Group universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and Imperial, explains an overly negative rhetoric from the government will deter international students who should instead be made to feel welcome. 5 cross-party select committees have all also recommended that the government alter its position in relation to international students in regards to immigration, as there is strong evidence that it is deterring overseas students. The government remains unwilling to budge however.

As the UK seems to be deterring international students, other European countries seem more than happy to relax their regulations and restrictions on foreign students and try and attract a larger share of the lucrative market. France, traditionally a 2nd rate player in international higher education, standing as the 5th most popular destination for international students has recently unveiled plans to roll out the red carpet for international students. These initiatives range from offering free French classes, setting up workshops to help with the paperwork, and relaxing visa regulations and labour laws to make France an attractive place to stay and work after graduation. The French government has explicitly stated it is looking to attract more students from the BRICS nations and South Korea, which is emerging as a centre of engineering and technology.

Just a few miles across the border from France. Luxembourg has begun to expand its existing student capacity by 8000, and is looking beyond Europe’s borders to fill up these places, and the shoots of growth are beginning to appear, with increasing numbers of Chinese and Indian students choosing Luxembourg over more commonly-known institutions in the US and UK.

One of the UK’s biggest advantages in higher education, the English language, is also being negated by its European counterparts. The Politecnico di Milano, an engineering and technology based university in the northern Italian city, recently adopted English as its official Language, citing international visibility as one of its main reasons for choosing to do so. This marks a wider trend throughout continental European universities, especially in Scandinavia and central Europe, with over 4,500 university courses now being taught in English on the continent.

What’s at stake for the UK is more than just prestige in global HE as there is a great deal of economic benefit to international students. In the short term it creates service jobs where they live and study, as well as providing much needed exports to a market dependant on imports. In the long term, more highly skilled internationals will choose the UK to work in after their studies, helping drive forward industries where the UK lags behind, such as the sciences and engineering. Many experts have also pointed out that the friendships made between international students at university, can lead to strong international networks within professions, creating a more stable international market.

The UK is strangling its own future as it deters greater numbers of international students from attending its universities, reducing its economic viability, both in the long term and the immediate future, as well as reducing the competitiveness of one of its most lucrative exports. Though it remains one of the most sought after locations for HE globally, European universities are catching up, and with serious investment and radical government initiatives they could one day mount a serious challenge to the supremacy of the UK’s international student-body in Europe.

BY: Jack Briggs

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