In a report published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Harvard Kennedy School, Jo Johnson warned that the anticipated 50-75% drop in international students as a result of coronavirus would expose “real vulnerabilities” in university finances.

“We need to go all out to achieve ambitious education export goals”

The former minister and brother of prime minister Boris Johnson said universities have long been tied down by “bureaucracy, obsessions with poorly-crafted immigration targets and petty rules”, pointing out that the UK’s international student numbers rose by just 0.3% in 2016 and  0.9% in 2017.

To overcome this, Johnson recommended that the government recommit to existing 2030 exports targets outlined in the International Education Strategy and create an additional goal for the UK to be the number one study destination worldwide after the US.

“For many years, the top three destinations for international students have been the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. But recently global student mobility has begun to shift,” he wrote in the report.

“The UK’s market share declined in 17 out of the world’s 21 top sending countries between 2010 and 2017. By contrast, Australia has now seen steady year-on-year growth of around 14% and might soon catch up with the UK in terms of total overseas numbers if it has not done so already.”

Image: Universities open to the world report

To maintain its foothold as a top student destination, Johnson said that it is vital to send a clear signal that Britain is open and welcome, with a “best-in-class student visa offer”.

To achieve this, he said, the government should “turbocharge” the competitiveness of the UK visa offer with the doubling of post-study work visas from two to four years.

By extending its offering to four years, he said the UK would make clear its openness to international students: “improving its attractiveness as a study destination and demonstrating that their contribution to the UK is valued”.

He also suggested that the UK should seek to rebalance its mix of international students coming by doubling Indian student numbers by 2024, noting that the UK has made strides in appealing to Indian students after a steep decline following the removal of the PSW visa in 2012.

Johnson remarked that the government should take heed of the fact that the number of Tier 4 study visas for Indian students increased 136% to almost 50,000 in the year to March 2020.

“The UK is in a good position to take market share from the US”

He added that reversing the Home Office’s “continued and deeply unpopular” exclusion of India from its low-risk Tier 4 visa list, which allows students from China and certain other countries a streamlined visa process, should also be a priority.

“The UK is in a good position to take market share from the US in India and a further improvement in the post-study work offer would help the sector overcome new concerns about studying in the UK that have arisen in the wake of Covid-19,” he said.

“A Tier 4 visa that promises four years of post-study work rights will be of huge advantage to the UK in India, where students are particularly sensitive to this opportunity.”

Among his other recommendations, Johnson said the UK’s HE sector would benefit greatly by increasing flexibility on visas and English proficiency testing, by creating a global student mobility network to replace Erasmus, and by developing a StudyUK alumni network to “leverage its international alumni”.

“International education is one of the UK’s few globally competitive sectors,” said Johnson in a statement.

“The moment has come to ensure that the UK’s great universities can play their full part in this next chapter of Britain’s engagement with the world beyond its shores.”

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