The UK government’s visa proposals undermine the role of universities in delivering economic growth
Evelyn Morrison and Jonathan Grant / Nov 2015
In the First World War, some soldiers seeking to escape the horrors of trench warfare deliberately shot themselves in the foot. Their hope was to leave the atrocious conditions of the front line behind following a medical discharge. Today we might reflect on the desperation driving soldiers to hurt themselves, but few contemporaries doubted that self-inflicted wounds seriously undermined the war effort. The practice was discouraged as vigorously as possible.
When it comes to migration policy, the UK government plans to shoot itself in the foot. The Home Secretary’s proposed visa reforms help the UK government achieve its objective of reducing net immigration to 100,000 per year, but they simultaneously will undermine a hard won and still delicate economic recovery. Not least because, in today’s economy, our universities are key drivers of growth, prosperity and social wellbeing for current and future generations – not just within the UK and Europe, but globally.
Home and away
In 2013/4 in the UK, non-EU students comprised around 8.7 per cent of the total undergraduate population and 29.3 per cent of postgraduates (152,355 and 157,840 students respectively). Proposed reforms set a target for the non-EU student population; students will have to prove higher levels of financial backing to qualify for a visa; from August this year, non-EU students will lose the right to work; and students leaving college will also be prevented from applying for a work visa from within Britain. These changes won’t just restrict universities’ access to non-EU students; they make it harder for students to support themselves financially, extend their studies or stay to work in the UK. As highlighted by Professor Ed Byrne, Principal of King’s College London, in a recent article: ‘…the measures go too far and put the competitiveness of UK universities at risk’.
International research experience and international researchers deliver high performance
But these reforms don’t just affect student recruitment. Another proposal is to increase the salary thresholds applicable to visas for non-EU workers. This would put pressure on the number of international staff UK universities can sponsor, as well as directly impacting their existing workforce. In 2013/4, non-EU academics comprised around 11.4 per cent of the staff at UK universities.
A recent report undertaken by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, in collaboration with RAND Europe, looked at the characteristics of high performing research units in English universities. The team identified the top 30 (out of around 1500) academic research groups using the results of the UK Research Excellence Framework. For these 30 units common characteristics were identified through both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Crucially these high performing units had a higher proportion of staff with international experience than average and a higher proportion of non UK staff than average. In other words the UK’s ability to attract world leading researchers from across the globe is a significant contributor to excellent research performance. A fact confirmed in a recent article in Times Higher Education that noted, ‘nearly two fifths (38 per cent) of Nobel laureates who studied at universities outside their home country went to an institution in the UK – more than any other country’.
The lifeblood of the knowledge-based economy
In the context of economic and higher education policy, these reforms are nonsense. Students from abroad drive an increasingly important element of UK export value, as a 2011 report from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills shows: from a 2008-09 baseline, the value of the education related export market is expected to nearly double, to £26.6 billion by 2025.
Meanwhile research undertaken by academic staff, funded by taxpayers and charities, delivers other vital economic benefits. In a series of studies looking at the economic returns from cardiovascular research and cancer research, for example, the returns can be as high as 40 per cent per year in perpetuity. Although comparisons are difficult, this is an eye-watering rate of return when compared with the government’s minimum 3.5% threshold for public investment returns.
Objections to the impact of the government’s immigration policy are not new; visa proposals have been increasing pressures on the UK’s higher education system for some time (see this Parliamentary Briefing from Universities UK, for example). However a large and growing body of evidence is showing just how serious and far-reaching the consequences of these latest proposals could be. Let’s hope they don’t undermine the UK’s wider goal of long-term economic prosperity.