Oxford Vice-Chancellor lambasts new UK immigration reforms


In a sign of growing disquiet among Britain’s top universities at its government’s immigration policy, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford has joined his counterpart at Cambridge in lambasting reforms which have been blamed for an alarming drop-off in the numbers of Indian and Pakistani students coming to study in the United Kingdom.

In his annual oration to the institution, Professor Andrew Hamilton said that it “baffles” him that the UK government has adopted a visa system “so hostile to student entry”. 

He said: “For the first time in decades, the number of international students at our universities in the UK has dropped- most markedly students from India. Why are we doing this to them – and to ourselves? The excellence of UK higher education is, in crude material terms, an attractive commodity in the world market. Why, at a time of continued economic constraint, are we limiting one of our most effective generators of overseas revenue?” 

In June, Professor Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, furiously attacked the Conservative party’s “crude” target of reducing net migration to below 100,000 per year, a number which controversially includes students. Perhaps most ominously of all, he warned of a growing perception overseas that Britain is pulling up the drawbridge for overseas students. 

That fear is borne out by the figures; with the Higher Education Funding Council for England announcing in April this year that the number of international students at UK universities had fallen for the first time in three decades. The drop-off has been most significant for Indian and Pakistani students, with their numbers dropping by 38 per cent and 62 per cent respectively between 2011 and 2012. 

Foreign students are classed as immigrants by the current British government, and therefore are included in the overall net migration figure which it is keen to reduce. It has also implemented some unpopular reforms since coming to office in 2010, including tightening controls on institutions that sponsor international students coming to study in the UK, and the scrapping of the post-study work visa which entitled foreign graduates to look for work for up to two years after the completion of their degree. Now non-EU graduates who wish to stay must switch to a tier 2 visa which only entitles them to remain in the UK if they reach a threshold of points and achieve a salary of at least £20,000 per year.

The intervention of the chiefs of the country’s two leading, globally renowned universities comes at a time when mainstream political language in the UK is talking tougher on limiting immigration, particularly following the spectacular breakthroughs of anti-EU party Ukip in the European elections earlier this year

However, Hamilton dismissed in his oration the notion that the public are concerned by the numbers of overseas students.  “Migration Observatory research has shown that the public do not automatically think about students when they think about migration. Study is the least frequent answer given when the public are asked what they consider the motives for migration to be. Student migration simply isn’t an issue for them and there are few votes in restricting overseas student numbers,” he said.

Indeed, Britain risks being left behind in an increasingly competitive global tug-of-war to attract hordes of ambitious, mobile international students. As the Financial Times reports, with over half of India’s population under-25, and the growth of the Chinese overseas student population expected to grow by 15 per cent each year until 2018, a fallback in student numbers can only be interpreted as grim news. The global student market is now estimated to be worth $30bn. In contrast to the UK, Australia has liberalised its immigration laws for students and seems to be reaping the dividends, with eight of its institutions improving their standing in the latest Times Higher Education ranking of the top 200 universities in the world.

So is it still worth it for international students to vault the barriers in place from them studying in the UK? Well, British universities are still feted globally for their quality. Not only that, international students are overwhelmingly welcomed by their British peers. A recent study by the British Council found that three-quarters of British students believe “the UK has a collective responsibility to make international students feel welcomed”, while a similar number felt that British students actually do welcome their international counterparts. Only 2 per cent voiced the view that “international students do not belong in the UK”. But there is still work to do, with a study last year ranking UK universities at a lowly 13th place in Europe for levels of student satisfaction.

With their contribution to the British economy of £14bn per annum, and with that estimated to rise to £25bn by 2025, it seems perverse for the government to be actively putting off overseas students from furthering their study on UK shores, despite its toughening rhetoric on immigration. 

Yet Hamilton believes there are signs for optimism in restrictions being relaxed. “There are some signs that this reality is beginning to dawn across the political spectrum; something to be welcomed and encouraged ahead of the election,” Hamilton said. The Labour party has said that they intend to exclude international students from any immigration cap, and supporters of the Yes campaign in September’s Scottish independence referendum pledged to reinstate the post-study work visa. 

There is also an undercurrent of dissent within the Conservatives raising concerns that its party’s policy of classing foreign students as immigrants has been foolhardy. A poll of Conservative 2015 parliamentary candidates revealed that 78 per cent favoured changing this policy, and their voices have been amplified by Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, who told the BBC that “the public do not see students who come and go as part of the immigration problem.”

In many cases, the damage has already been done, with many Indian students saying that they “don’t feel welcome” in the UK anymore. It should be an immediate priority for whatever government is elected in May next year to ensure that British universities do not slip further behind and threaten their reputation for academic excellence with international students at their heart.