In 2012, the government scrapped its post-study work visa which allowed international students to stay in the UK for up to two years after graduating.
Now, Universities UK is calling for a global graduate talent visa to be introduced to allow students to stay in the country on a more flexible basis after their studies and, with the UK’s departure from the EU imminent, the timing could not be more imperative.
The UK has an internationally-renowned higher education sector and is the second most popular destination in the world for international students, with more than 442,000 studying at UK universities in 2016-17.
Already, the US, Australia and Canada have permits in place to allow international students to stay on for a number of years after graduating and, since 2011, countries such as these have seen the number of students enrolling significantly increase, while the UK has experienced a mere 3% rise.
Now, more than ever, universities need to be focused on developing their global footprint and ensure attracting and retaining international students is at the top of their agenda in order to prevent missing out on the global growth of international students.
International students are invaluable to universities and to the UK. Universities embracing overseas students and global partnerships means internationalisation of the student experience – offering valuable opportunities both for home and overseas students to develop them as global citizens ready for the global marketplace.
Economic impact and cultural vibrancy
Not only do international students have a significant impact on the economy (in 2014/15, international students and their families generated £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy and 206,000 jobs for the UK economy), they bring social and cultural vibrancy to universities and cities.
International students enrich the research and learning environment and help home students to develop internationally relevant skills. Foreign PhD students bring new research ideas and expertise to our universities and help to strengthen their international partnerships. They help build international contacts and understanding of cultures, vital for the increasingly internationally globalised labour market.
Having strong international partnerships is an avenue for universities to diversify their income streams, as well as enhance their global brand and profile.
More importantly, however, international students increase the country’s soft power when they return home and become informal ambassadors for the UK and our universities, strengthening trade, research and diplomatic links. They also enhance the academic experience of domestic students, with 57 current world leaders having been educated in the UK.
The University of Derby supports the proposal of a post-work study visa to be introduced along with the British public, who recognise the value that international students can bring. A recent Universities UK report revealed 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.
Derby is a university with a global outlook and we are working towards developing a genuinely international culture within our community. We were ranked second most recommended UK modern university by international students in the 2016 International Student Barometer, and in 2016/17 we welcomed over 900 EU and exchange students and 600 international students from more than 100 countries.
However, attracting overseas students to study in the UK – particularly when there is currently no guarantee they will be able to stay and pursue lifelong careers in skill-based jobs – poses many challenges.
The international higher education marketplace continues to be extremely competitive, but the situation has been exacerbated by the rules and restrictions around UK visas and immigration and compliance.
The UK needs to remain competitive to ensure it is able to contend for the global share of international students. Unsurprisingly, one of five international students studying at UK universities are from China – the biggest sender country of international students.
As a result, universities need to be on the front foot, developing a series of key strategic partnerships within targeted countries that connect activity from research, and learning and teaching, to student and staff exchanges and working with businesses and industry. The challenge for institutions is being able to articulate who they are and demonstrate their areas of excellence.
In November 2017, the University of Derby launched a dedicated team based in Shanghai, China to help develop and strengthen its global footprint, support recruitment partners, and provide a positive presence in China for Derby at all educational platforms.
The University already has academic collaboration agreements with several key universities in China – including the University of Jiangsu, Jiangxi University of Technology, Heifei University, and Tongji University – and these have been developed as a result of aligning mutually beneficial agreements, particularly in the areas of engineering and technology.
We are also developing relationships with institutions in Toyota City, Japan, as a result of our involvement with the 20th anniversary of the twinning agreement between Derbyshire and Toyota City.
Another challenge is the UK’s reputation for being less than welcoming. We appreciate the government has to be robust in ensuring students who come here are here for the correct reasons, but we have to balance this with the value and benefits that international students, who genuinely want to contribute to society, can bring.
What does Brexit mean for the higher education sector?
The Brexit vote has posed many challenges for higher education institutions and there are certainly unanswered questions; longer-term will we still be able to attract and retain talented students and staff? What will happen to research funding and collaborations such as Horizon 2020, and will there still be opportunities for our students to broaden their knowledge and life experience through hugely valuable schemes such as Erasmus?
Regardless of the Brexit outcome, the post-study work visa proposal should enable a less restrictive approach to retaining valuable overseas talent, and ensure international students have a positive experience in the UK by making the visa process smooth, proportionate and predictable, before and after their studies.
It is vital that universities, as well as the whole of the UK, recognise the value of international students staying in the country; using their education, skills and expertise in valuable roles to enhance our communities after graduating. They are lifelong ambassadors for the UK.
The new post-study work visa proposal is ambitious, but if we are serious about improving our poor post-study work offer, strengthening our global footprint and truly appreciating the economic and non-monetary value overseas students bring, the UK has to be more flexible.
 HESA Student record
 Universities UK (2017) The economic impact of students