Diana Beech: Government blocking overseas students’ dependants is latest reckless attack on key sector

Diana Beech: Government blocking overseas students’ dependants is latest reckless attack on key sector

London’s higher education sector is one of the capital’s and the country’s greatest success stories. Yet today, Suella Braverman has implemented the latest in series of reckless government policies to put the capital’s universities under threat.

The Home Secretary has announced that international students enrolled on one-year Master’s degree courses in the UK will be prohibited from bringing dependents with them. As things stands, all international students are free to do this providing they fulfil rigorous Home Office requirements, including proving they have sufficient funds to support those who accompany them for the duration of their course – currently set at £845 a month for dependants – and paying a considerable healthcare surcharge of £470 per head.

In this respect international students and those who come with them not only wash their own faces financially, but also bring massive benefits to the communities they join – not just economically in the form of a huge contribution to the Treasury’s coffers but also culturally, linguistically and more. They also provide a much-needed revenue source for UK universities, with those in the capital needing to fill the gap created by years of frozen domestic student fees, which are now insufficient to cover the cost of most course delivery.

Representing the largest concentration of world-leading universities and colleges of any major global city, London’s higher education sector is a local asset and home to a wealth of institutions, ranging from small, specialist conservatoires to large, multi-faculty universities and everything in between. Collectively, London’s universities and colleges educate well over half a million students and support over 223,000 jobs across all sectors of the UK economy.

London’s higher education institutions are also a global magnet and a key driver behind the UK’s overall appeal to international students and researchers. Just last week the inaugural Brand Finance City Index listed London as the best city in the world, helped in no small part by its status as the number one global city to study and the number one city for “great universities”.

Also last week, the combined might of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Universities UK International, Kaplan International Pathways and London Economics revealed in a new report into the economic impact of international students that four in 10 new students in London now come from overseas and that just one year’s cohort of international students in the capital brings in a whopping £9.6 billion in net economic benefits for the region. That equates to an average net impact in London of £131 million per parliamentary constituency, or £1,040 per resident.

As I wrote for On London back in July 2021, London’s higher education sector was the first casualty of this government’s Levelling Up – or Levelling Down – agenda, when it was hit by an earlier massive £64 million cut in the strategic priorities grant allocated to institutions across England to cover the costs of teaching. Until then, London’s universities had received a modest additional premium to account for the higher costs of delivering higher education in the capital. However, the now former education secretary Gavin Williamson removed this “London weighting” supplement overnight, saying he could no longer justify a different formula for the capital city.

If removing the London weighting was like chopping the legs away from underneath London’s universities, then bringing in a ban on visas for the dependents of international Master’s students is akin to removing their arms as well.

International students and their dependents are not economic migrants. They are exactly the highly-skilled incomers London and the wider UK is calling out for as we look to fill critical skills shortages and recharge our economy after  Brexit and the disruption caused by Covid-19. They represent a boost to “brand UK”, whether by staying here to work after graduation and helping to power our economy, or by returning to their home countries and increasing British soft power through the ideas, friendships and values that they gain here. International students also help maintain London’s position as the world’s top student city and enhance its global connectivity and flair.

By telling future international students that they can no longer come to study for a Master’s without leaving their nearest and dearest behind, we are effectively handing a winning ticket to our global competitors, who will be lining up to take on the talent that the UK is effectively turning away. This not only risks knocking London off the top spot for international education, but also swings a wrecking ball at our national prospects for long-term growth and prosperity as the world’s brightest and best choose to take their ideas and innovations elsewhere. The effects of this irrational policy decision will be felt far beyond the walls of London’s universities.

Dr Diana Beech is chief executive officer of London Higher. Follow Diana on Twitter.

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