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September 2019

The UK Government has announced a major visa reform affecting international students. Maddalaine Ansell, Education Director, looks at how this will benefit cultural engagement.

A Great British Export

The UK Government has announced a major reform to post-study work visas for international students studying in the UK. 

From next year, students graduating from British higher education institutions with at least an undergraduate degree can apply to stay for two years to work or seek work. If they find skilled work, they can switch into the skilled workers immigration route, which can lead to permanent settlement in the UK.

British Council staff around the world, particularly in key markets in Asia from China to Turkey, report that education agents and counsellors and prospective students are very positive about the change

The number of students affected is likely to be large: in the 2018-19 academic year, over a quarter of a million study visas were issued to international students in the UK; a 12% increase on the previous year, with demand expected to keep rising. 

British Council staff around the world, particularly in key markets in Asia from China to Turkey, report that education agents and counsellors and prospective students are very positive about the change.

In India and across South Asia the reform has already made waves. Previously, the perceived difficulty of getting post-study visas was one of the biggest issues affecting perceptions of the UK. The announcement is expected to give a major boost to a huge and growing number of students from the region hoping to study abroad in English-speaking universities. India alone already accounts for over 21,500 students in the UK every year – a growth of 42% on the previous year and almost double the numbers for the year before that, although still not back at the high levels achieved in 2010-11 before post study work rights were reduced in the first place. These numbers are now expected to increase significantly. 

The British Council India office reports that Indian media and social media reacted very positively to the news. Agents, counsellors, parents, and students have all expressed positive reactions, even in areas where the market had been dormant, and local British Council staff are already experiencing a spike in queries about studying in the UK. Interest in Pakistan also appears to be picking up. 

Elsewhere, China currently sends more people to study in British universities than from any other country, with over 107,500 Chinese students studying in the UK each year – more than from the whole of the rest of the EU put together. These students also pay higher fees than domestic and EU students. China has huge strategic importance to the UK and, through their students coming here, we can build mutual understanding.

Again, there is strong anecdotal evidence of an immediate positive reaction to the rule change in China. Ma Xing, Director for UK Business Line, Beijing New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting Company Ltd (the largest international education agency in China) said: ‘We expect the new graduate immigration route to make a positive difference to perceptions of the UK as a destination among prospective students in China and that it will boost applications to the UK.’ The same agency reported that some of their US-based clients have started to ask about the UK, with other agents confirming the same reaction. 

Open for Business

The economic benefits of international students are huge. There are currently around 350,000 international students in the UK every year (of whom around half have had engagement with the British Council). They are estimated to be worth £25bn per year to the UK economy. The new visa route will support the UK's ambitions to increase the number of international students studying in the UK each year to 600,000 by 2030, and to increase the direct economic benefit to £35bn per year.

While increasing education exports is vital as the UK finds its new place in the world, it is also important to highlight the opportunities the change presents for cultural engagement – for which there is nothing more powerful than people from around the world coming to work and study in one another’s countries. People are likely to return home with positive attitudes towards the country and are significantly more likely to visit, trade with and support each other’s countries in the international arena. Many of those who study in the UK will one day be in positions of authority – like Kristalina Georgieva, just appointed as Chief Executive of the IMF, who was once a British Council scholar at the LSE – and 57 heads of state, representing roughly one in four of the world’s countries

Research by the British Council, soon to be published, also shows that those who have studied in the UK are 14% more likely to view the UK positively, averaged across all soft power measures. Furthermore, a perception of being open and welcoming is the single biggest driver of trust in the UK amongst young people from around the G20, not just those who have studied in the UK. The likely benefits of this rule change are therefore likely to spread beyond the immediate increase in education exports with the economic results that come with them, and potentially to go wider than just those who take advantage of it: there will also be a less easily calculable but potentially profound long-term impact on the UK’s soft power.

This is supported by recent research by UUKi. Their recent report based on a survey of 16,000 international graduates of UK universities found that: 

  • 77% of respondents say they are more likely to do business with the UK in the future as a result of studying here;
  • 77% of research postgraduates intend to collaborate with the UK for research purposes;
  • 81% of those surveyed intend to build professional links with organisations in the UK;
  • 88% of respondents plan to visit the UK again for tourism or leisure.

Even though the overwhelming majority of international students return to their own countries after graduation, the announcement of a new visa route will give international students more time to find skilled work after they graduate, which many see as a crucial factor when deciding where to study. This will bring enormous economic and socio-cultural benefits to the UK. 

Maddalaine Ansell, Director Education, British Council

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