The reintroduction of the two-year post-study work visa has been broadly welcomed by the higher education sector. Professor Judith Lamie, Pro Vice-Chancellor External Affairs of the University of Derby, explains why its impact shouldn’t just be measured in pounds and pence.
The government’s announcement that it is to reintroduce the two-year post-study work visa for international students is a shot in the arm not just for universities, but for our businesses, services and communities. In the debate over immigration to the UK, economic impact inevitably dominates the discussion of the value that international students and workers contribute. However, it is the knowledge, skills and experience which they bring, share and embed, along with a broadening of our cultural diversity, which should really be valued the most.
The appeal of our universities remains strong across the globe. However, the withdrawal of the UK post-study work offer in 2012 has not afforded the same degree of security that some of our competitors in, for example, the USA, Australia and Canada could offer their international graduates, and has limited the opportunities to work with our world-leading companies and undertake the pioneering research that our universities have become synonymous with.
Without that security, and the time to begin and develop a career here, what incentive would there be to retain their abilities here at the end of their degree? This ‘new route’ for international students here in Britain, as the Prime Minister has described it, has multiple benefits. It means our employers have a greater a pool of talent to select from, helping to meet the skills needs of the country.
Forging new partnerships
There are more likely to be enduring business links built and benefits for the UK tourist trade because of the relationship our international students have forged with the country through their time at university and at the beginning of their working lives.
The two-year post-study work visa adds another important facet to our partnerships with universities and colleges around the world. To give an example at Derby, we have forged exciting new collaborations in countries such as China, India, Japan and Botswana. These relationships, which involve student exchange programmes, are hugely important to us as a university, which is at the heart of our local community, having a positive impact across the Midlands region, and adopting a genuinely global outlook.
Universities UK estimates that the contribution made by our international students – of whom there were more than 450,000 last year – to the national economy is £26bn. Studies of the economic impact of the University of Derby provide a snapshot of the positive economic picture at a local and regional level which reflects that. However, it is the importing and sharing of knowledge which I regard as having the greatest and most enduring impact.
The Prime Minister would concur, it would seem. He used the announcement to acknowledge how access to UK universities and the freedom to continue to work here following graduation has contributed to important breakthroughs in research of all kinds.
The announcement also sends out a clear message that Britain welcomes international students, a sentiment which may have been lost by the decision taken to remove the visa, as well as in some of the rhetoric which surrounds Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union.
Developing new skills
That message of welcome was reiterated by the newly reappointed Universities Minister Chris Skidmore MP at the Universities UK conference, who made it clear he wants to “ensure the United Kingdom continues to be an attractive place to study.”
It was interesting to note that the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, wants the post-study work visa to form part of a ‘deal’ for the higher education sector. Better access to higher education and an end to grade inflation were mentioned. Nevertheless, this trade-off should not take the shine off a considerable step forward in the right direction. For a start, the sector is already addressing these and many other issues in order to create a system which is fair, yet also challenges our students to become the game-changers of the future.
And the integration of international students has another benefit for their UK counterparts, which is to cause them to consider embarking on a similar adventure. The intercultural exchange that our international students help to propagate enables UK students to see the possibilities that studying abroad can open up. This is not just about new experiences, but the way in which a period of study in a foreign country can develop their own skills and employability. Those UK students return home with new skill sets, confidence and an impressive-looking CV, ready to make their contribution to our society and economy.
Whatever other divisions may exist as a result of the UK’s recent political upheaval, the evidence of support for this initiative from inside and outside the higher education sector appears clear. A recent Universities UK report revealed that 78% of undergraduate students believe that studying alongside international peers prepares them for working in a global environment, and 73% of the British public would like to see the same number or more international students coming to study in the UK.
Put simply, enabling international students to apply their knowledge and skills in the UK beyond graduation benefits us all.