International students bring millions of pounds to our economy. But are we doing enough to encourage them to study here? Chris Bond reports.
IN years gone by the most exotic accents some university students in this country probably heard were from around the British Isles, whereas now they’re almost as likely to share a classroom with someone from Beijing as they are with a Brummie.
But education is now a global business with British universities eager to entice talented overseas students to the UK. It’s easy to understand why. Earlier this month Sheffield University published a study which showed that international students in Sheffield were worth around £120m a year to the city’s economy.
Data from the same research revealed that 8.9 per cent of foreign students go on to work in Yorkshire, with an additional 10.7 per cent getting jobs elsewhere in the UK, bringing fresh skills and talent to the workplace.
Last week, Sheffield University’s vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett emphasised their importance when he led a delegation of university bigwigs to India to forge closer research links between Sheffield and Indian institutions and businesses.
Indian students, along with those from China and Malaysia, make up the three biggest groups of international students at Sheffield University. Half of its foreign students are studying Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – and Professor Burnett believes they are playing a crucial role in plugging acknowledged skills gaps in the UK workforce.
“They make a powerful contribution to our university, our research strength and the UK economy. But more than that, the fact that our universities are home to talented young people from all over the world is itself a powerful and life-changing educational experience.”
Despite their importance to the UK and our connections around the world, there are concerns among some education chiefs, politicians and business leaders that tougher new visa controls could deter foreign students from coming here.
Since last year, all institutions that want to sponsor non-EU students for a visa must be accredited as “highly trusted”, while potential entrants are also required to speak a higher standard of English and the “post-study work route” to staying on has been closed, unless graduates have an offer of one of a list of skilled jobs.
It’s all part of a crackdown against bogus students coming into the country. The Government has made a big play of reducing the number of immigrants coming to the UK but has been criticised for refusing to remove foreign students from its net migration target.
Net migration figures actually fell last year, although officials say this is largely down to a drop in foreign students, fuelling concerns that many people have been put off coming to the UK.
The coalition has attempted to allay such fears and in February David Cameron led a 100-strong trade mission to India during which he went out of his way to woo prospective students, saying there was “no limit” to the number of Indians who would be allowed to study at UK universities and stay on in graduate level jobs after they qualified.
But while the Government has been criticised for sending out mixed messages over international students, higher education bosses are unequivocal about the benefits they bring. “During the time they’re here, which can be one year or up to five years, they’re using local services and spending money in shops and restaurants and they make a significant contribution to the local economy,” says Simon Willis, director of admissions at York University.
Around 20 per cent of York’s students come from outside the UK and Willis says they bring more than just financial benefits. “They bring to the university and the classroom a dimension we wouldn’t have if all our students were from the UK. They make a contribution far beyond just an economic one.
“Living and working side by side with students from other countries gives UK students a different perspective of the world, and given that a lot of them may spend at least part of their careers working outside the UK, it’s a valuable experience.”
However, with other countries looking to attract more international students Willis says the government needs to consider the long-term impact of its policy regarding overseas students. “A lot of people from right across the world are educated in the UK and we need to be looking ahead. There’s a risk in the future that the UK will find it has less prospective friends around the world if it restricts the number of people who can come here for their education.”
Following changes to the post-study working visas he says the numbers coming to York University from India have dropped, although overall the numbers have stayed roughly the same. “English is still seen as the language of business, and this makes the UK an attractive place for students.”
At Leeds University, there are more than 6,000 international students from 130 countries. Jacqui Brown, head of the university’s international office, says they boost more than just the local economy. “International students also visit the region’s tourist attractions, use its airports and transport network, as will their families who come to visit.
“But that’s just the direct economic benefit. Many of our students go on to set up their own companies or work for leading multinationals. Their fondness for Leeds can lead to links with local businesses, bringing investment into the region long after their studies here.”
She says British students benefit, too. “They exchange languages, learn about different cultures and gain an insight into the global market place. This improves their employment prospects, both in the UK and abroad, because businesses appreciate their awareness of different markets and customers.”
Indonesian student Steven Marcelino is in the final year of his international business and finance degree at Leeds University. When he first arrived in West Yorkshire he spoke little English and had to adapt to a completely different culture thousands of miles away from home. But three years on and his language skills have improved and he’s a Leeds University Union cultural representative.
He believes that having lived and studied in Yorkshire will mean better opportunities in the future than if he had remained in his own country. “It’s made me more adaptable because I’ve come to a totally different culture and I think it has made me more employable.”
The 20-year-old talks fondly of his time in Leeds, says he’s been made to feel very welcome, but he says the perception of the UK among his peers back home is less favourable. “In terms of visas and immigration the UK is still very tough, and that’s what puts a lot of people off. But when you get here you realise it is actually very welcoming.”
It isn’t cheap, though. It costs homegrown students £9,000 a year to study in the UK whereas this figure can more than double for those from outside the EU. “We pay a lot more to study here,” says Marcelino. “Leeds is my second home so I spend a lot of money here. But international students don’t like to be seen as this cash cow that produces lots of financial benefits, because I would argue there are many more non-financial benefits we can offer in the short term and the long term.”
When he finishes his course in July he plans to return home to Indonesia, but says he’s happy to be an ambassador for Leeds. “If someone is studying business then I would recommend the UK because it’s an important financial hub and the network I’ve built up through the business school has been very important.
“I have made good friends here and I will definitely recommend people to come to Leeds, because it has been a brilliant experience.”
Foreign legions in Yorkshire
Sheffield University has a student population of just under 25,000, from 125 countries. A recent study, commissioned by Sheffield University, estimates that international students pump around £120m into the city’s economy each year.
More than 600 of Leeds University’s international students are here on exchange programmes, providing opportunities for British students at Leeds to spend time at overseas universities.
Around 2,500 of the foreign students at Leeds University are studying Engineering and Science subjects.
At York University international students make up 20 per cent of the overall student population.