Almost five years ago, I was invited to apply for the deanship at Manchester Business School. The principal reason for my interest was the international orientation of the school and, indeed, the global nature of the entire UK higher education sector, especially compared with the US universities in which I had worked.
At MBS, 35 per cent of the undergraduate students are from outside the UK, and the postgraduate programmes have students from more than 80 countries at any time. Similarly, the faculty is drawn from the best and brightest from dozens of countries.
The consequence of this openness redounds to the benefit not only of the students who are provided with the best possible preparation for their global business careers but also for the UK, which has attracted exceptional talent, and for the Manchester region, which has reaped the economic development rewards of a new, large export industry – higher education.
This special feature of UK higher education is now threatened by the UK government’s proposed changes in immigration policy. The proposals amount to a “triple whammy” that could end up reducing the flow of talent to the UK, decreasing innovativeness and removing a major source of economic development.
The proposed limit of 21,700 tier one and two work visas per year – a reduction of 20 per cent – is way too few for the UK and will inevitably constrain universities and other skill-intensive organisations. When MBS, for example, has a vacancy for a professor, we search all over the world for the best candidates, regardless of nationality. That is how we maintain our high global ranking. It is unthinkable to be prevented from doing that because of a work visa quota.
As to the proposal to tighten student visas, the stated focus is on students seeking to come to the UK for courses below degree level. However, the UK government’s Home Office has made the student visa process more burdensome for all applicants. At MBS alone last year, over a dozen highly qualified foreign students were unable to begin their postgraduate studies because of undue delays in the visa application process.
The third proposed change – the elimination of the post-study work visa – is the most troubling. There is evidence that foreign students have chosen to matriculate in universities in the UK, rather than in the US, continental Europe or Australia, because of the opportunity to get two years of work experience in the UK before returning home. This has benefited not only the student but also companies in the UK (particularly smaller ones) that need workers with foreign language skills and cultural knowledge. Research shows that very few of the jobs taken by post-study visa holders would have otherwise gone to unemployed Britons. We also know that the vast majority of these temporary visa holders return to their home countries after two years. This proposal is worrisome because it is likely to reduce the number of applications for our postgraduate programmes in particular.
There could not be a worse time to reduce the innovativeness and vitality of the British economy or to stanch the flow of foreign currency into the UK. The four largest institutions of higher education in Greater Manchester enrolled more than 11,000 non-EU students this past year, who collectively injected almost £250m directly into the region’s economy, in fees and living expenses. If we apply a commonly used economic multiplier of three we can say that foreign students accounted for £750m of economic impact in the region. If the government’s proposed changes reduced the flow of foreign students even by 10 per cent, the region would stand to lose £75m in spending each year and hundreds of the associated jobs needed to provide goods and services to those students.
I do not dispute that the UK immigration system has problems that need to be addressed but the focus on highly skilled and post-study work visas is misguided and these proposed changes need to be rethought.
Michael Luger is dean of Manchester Business School, University of Manchester