International students bring more than £6.9 billion income to UK universities in tuition fees and contribute more than £26bn to the economy, but the country’s universities are facing potential losses running into billions of pounds if students stay away due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We could consider broadening this beyond the EU depending on the interest in such a scheme”

To help with the sector’s recovery, a document jointly published by UUK International, BUILA and UKCISA has been submitted to government, outlining the main barriers to student recruitment and where “urgent” support is needed.

Among the suggestions to maximise the UK’s competitiveness, the sector bodies propose exploring “mechanisms to offer government-backed loans on commercial terms to international students from selected countries”.

Speaking to The PIE News, director of UUKi, Vivienne Stern, said the idea for a national loan scheme for international students came about as there has been no confirmation as to whether EU students will be eligible for domestic fee and loan status for 2021 entry.

“The idea would be that we help them with the upfront costs and they pay back over time just as UK domiciled students do,” she explained.

“Interest rates are so low, and graduates such a good bet in financial return terms, we thought this might be something worth exploring with government and with banks.

“We could consider broadening this beyond the EU depending on the interest in such a scheme,” Stern added.

Additionally, the document calls on government to take action to ensure the visa system allows for flexible and blended approaches to teaching this autumn, which UUK said will be necessary to maintain social distancing and safety on campuses.

UK visa centres are reopening in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, and Fiji.

However, in countries where UKVI offices and visa application centres remain closed, the bodies propose that the UK government “introduce alternative mechanisms to process visa applications online” and collect biometric information on arrival, as well as extending Covid-19 specific flexibility measures.

Additionally, UUKi has asked the government to reassure applicants that online study will not disqualify them from the new post-study work route due to be introduced in 2021; extend the visa application window from three months to six months; and extend rules allowing Tier 4 students to study partially online, to allow for the blended approach being planned by universities.

“I feel pretty confident that the visa system changes will be made,” noted Stern.

“The Home Office has been really very helpful and responsive to date, for which we are very grateful. But we need action soon.

“I feel government is doing all it can to help us – just sometimes not as fast as we would like”

“I believe that there are options that would reduce the need for physical trips to visa application centres, but I understand that there are real constraints in terms of the Home Office to implement these quickly.

“So this may be one that we need to press for in the longer term,” she added.

The sector bodies are also calling for the government to amplify the #WeAreTogether campaign – aimed at showcasing how the UK sector is pulling together in the fight against Covid-19 – internationally.

The campaign is being strongly supported across the sector, and to date, there have been more than 20,000 tweets, and over 80 UK universities have joined since its launch in April.

Additionally, the document calls on the government to charge the UK’s new International Education Champion – recently named as vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, Steve Smith – with leading sector efforts to in highlighting the “world’s best” international student experience available in the UK.

“We are discussing [these other elements] point by point with government. Some will fly and some will not. Generally, I feel government is doing all it can to help us – just sometimes not as fast as we would like,” Stern continued.

“[Universities minister] Michelle Donelan has been rather fabulous,” she added.

The document, ‘Kickstarting the recovery for international student recruitment: what do we need from government?’ can be read in full here.

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