Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Education tourists – misguided migration

In this guest post to IHEC Blog, Study Group’s Michael Cornes, considers the recent revisions to the UK’s international student visa system and their implications for the country’s higher education sector and economy in 2012.

The UK’s coalition government wants to reduce net migration from ‘the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’. Unfortunately due to a technicality, international students have been included in this political catch-all, as they remain in the country for longer than 12 months –according to the UN definition, this makes them migrants.

In an attempt to restrict the flow of international students, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has revised the Tier 4 visa system, implementing a series of stringent financial, academic and work-related measures to make it harder to secure a visa. The education sector has protested at the changes, fearing they will damage Britain’s ability to export its globally renowned ‘gold standard’ education, at a time when universities need to attract quality international students.

One of the revisions included a new English language level requirement: Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) B1. This was originally set at the higher B2, until the government realised huge numbers of international students would be instantly prevented from studying here (80% of our Chinese students arrive with CEFR levels under B2, yet 98% of them progress to university, for example). The B1 grade was therefore introduced.

The CEFR levels were an interesting choice of measurement for the Home Office and UK Border Agency. Letters between a senior member of the UKBA and one of the co-authors of the CEFR revealed that the UKBA was warned the scale wasn’t suitable, and that minimal consultation took place between the two parties. The government forged ahead regardless.

The decision to exclude genuine international students from learning English before progressing to university has been put into perspective by recent figures from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, which showed that 503,795 students at British institutions "studied wholly overseas" in 2010-11, up from 408,685 in 2009-10 and 388,135 in 2008-09. This is concerning. While transnational education (TNE) will be a big part of the future HE landscape, the UK benefits most from those international students who are based in Britain. Universities UK’s report on HE’s role in the country’s financial recovery, stated that the sector will be worth £10.4 billion by 2015, and the majority of that will be derived from off-campus expenditure by overseas students. If TNE increases, then the UK’s economy will surely suffer as a result.

International students should be classified as education tourists, not migrants. Prominent think tank The Migration Observatory has confirmed that only 6% of international students remain in the UK after five years – a period of time which could have been dedicated to A Levels and then a three year degree, (without considering further post-graduate study). Lumping international education in with general immigration policy is a dangerous game to play.

Elsewhere the UK’s biggest competitors in the education export industry are taking advantage of our weakening position with proactive steps to secure more foreign students for their universities. About 30% of all current international students in the world are already studying in the United States, and the Obama administration has introduced the Study in the States programme to encourage sector growth. Meanwhile Australia called for an official review into its international education sector after registering a A$2.7 billion drop in revenue in just one year.

International students do little more than arrive, learn and then leave, and in the process they contribute significantly to the UK’s higher education sector and the general economy, yet our government seems intent on driving them away. We still have the opportunity to rightly promote our ‘gold-standard’ universities and fill them with future leaders of industry from emerging economies all around the world. The UUK is now lobbying for international students to be excluded from net migration figures and we are wholeheartedly with them; let’s not jeopardise our privilege to educate, with a politically motivated debate on immigration which has nothing to do with these genuine, valuable, education tourists.

Study Group is a global leader in international education, providing the highest quality educational opportunities for students from over 140 countries. Beginning in 1994 with 7,000 students per year, Study Group now has an enrolment base of 60,000 around the world.


  1. There is sufficient material on the advantages of mother tongue tuition till end of primary school and even beyond. But the surrounding global society does not support this.

    1. Feifan,
      Can you explain what you mean? I am wondering if you a saying that it is better to delay the learning of a second language until the student is a little older?
      Thank you for your reply.

  2. David,
    This blog is interesting. I think that this is a typical example of a country cutting its nose to spite its face. I would like to share the following statistics. "The number of international students enrolled in English language courses in New Zealand during the March 2010 year was 41,798, up 13.0 percent from the previous March year"( _ stats/people_and_communities/ Language/SurveyOfEnglishLanguageProviders_HOTPYeMar10/Commentary.aspx). So if the U.K. continues its policy, international students will look for other countries who are more welcoming.

  3. Hello David
    Great post. I especially liked this concept about treating international students as educational tourists. After reading your post, it seems so logical.
    Thank you