Cap on foreign student numbers could send UK universities ‘over the edge’ | University funding

An immigration policy adviser has warned that universities could go bankrupt if the government limits the number of foreign students in a bid to reduce net immigration.

The head of the government’s Migration Advisory Commission said Rishi Sunak’s potential plan to clamp down on international students with “low-quality” degrees could “send many universities over the edge”, particularly in poor areas.

Professor Brian Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Most universities on most courses lose money on teaching British students and make up for that loss by charging international students more. If you close the international route, I’m not sure the university will survive.” .

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He said London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if only foreign students were allowed places at “elite” universities, asking: “But what about Newcastle, what about the North East, the North West and Scotland?”

The economics professor at King’s College added: “If you’re interested in the settlement agenda, you might want to worry about hurting universities across Britain.” It was not just an immigration policy but an education policy as well, he noted, as it could lead to a “massive increase” in British student fees to offset the loss of overseas student payments.

A spokesperson for No 10 declined to say what constituted a “low quality” score when pressed to provide the government’s definition on Friday.

Asked about concerns that the potential policy would harm universities and the UK economy, the official said: “Of course we support our universities – they are some of the best in the world – and of course we will always act in the best interests of the UK.”

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Downing Street said on Thursday the prime minister was considering cracking down on international students bringing dependents and restricting admissions to top universities, after net immigration to the UK jumped to a record 504,000.

Sunak’s spokesperson said he was “fully committed” to reducing overall migration levels and blamed “unique and unprecedented circumstances” for the record high.

The official said, “We are looking at all options to make sure the immigration system is adequate, and that includes consideration of dependent students and low-quality grades.”

This is in line with proposals being explored by Home Secretary Soella Braverman, who has previously complained about foreign students “bringing family members who can get a student visa” and “supporting, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.

Bell said limiting the number of family members students can bring to the UK is “definitely worth looking into”.

“If you’re an undergraduate student, you’re not allowed to bring a dependent, but students in master’s and doctoral programs are allowed to bring dependents, and that’s gone from… about 20,000 visas a year… to about 70,000 or 80,000.

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“This is an area where the government may wish to consider whether an offer is appropriate… Particularly for one-year master’s programmes, it may not be clear why dependents are allowed.”

It is estimated that 504,000 more people moved to the UK than they left in the 12 months to June 2022, a sharp increase from 173,000 in the year to June 2021.

The estimates were compiled by the Office for National Statistics, which said the jump was driven by unique factors including visa schemes for Ukrainians and Hong Kong nationals, and incoming students from outside the European Union.

People arriving on study visas account for the largest proportion of long-term immigration of non-EU citizens, at 277,000, or 39% of the total, according to the Office for National Statistics.

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