Although the figures released by UCAS today show a significant decline in the number of individuals applying to university in the UK this year (in England in particular), one figure that has bucked this trend has been largely ignored: an increase in applicants to UK universities from non-EU residents. It is of course quite right that the natural focus should be upon the choices made by our young people, but the fact that there has been a notable drop in applications from other EU countries – a decline of 12.9% from 47,675 to 41,543 – whereas there has been an increase of 8.5% from outside of the EU from 56,279 to 61,041 is worthy of comment.
In recent years UK universities have been investing an increasing amount of resources in attracting non-EU students because of the higher fees that they can be charged, and over the past 12-18 months in particular, there appears to have been a surge of recruitment to positions directed towards appealing to the international market and attracting overseas students to the UK. Whilst many of the students recruited in this fashion are certainly genuine and bring benefits to their receiving institutions and to their countries when they return home, a certain proportion are not, and use a university place to secure residency in the UK. This is the disreputable downside of the business, and one that has to a certain extent been encouraged by successive governments keen to attract ‘international talent’. It is this putative desire, linked to the embrace of globalisation and the orientation of many contemporary university vice-chancellors towards business plans focusing more upon maximising revenue rather than academic excellence, that has given birth to a powerful lobby group arguing in favour of increasing the ingress of international students and their exemption from immigration statistics.
Last month, Migration Watch drew attention to a letter signed by 70 university chancellors arguing for international students not to be included in immigration statistics. The think-tank quite rightly objected by drawing attention to the fact that circa 20% of all such students ‘stay on legally’ when they complete their studies, and that an unknown number remain illegally afterwards, particularly those from poorer countries. With some two million non-EU students having come to Britain for a year or longer over the past decade, it would therefore be folly not to include them in such statistics. Worryingly, the government does not even possess a mechanism for ascertaining how many students have returned home, as such checks are not made. Quite clearly, the system of higher education admissions for non-EU students needs to be overhauled, with universities being made legally accountable for any non-EU students who do not return to their countries of origin upon the completion of their courses. If universities wish to receive the financial benefits of recruiting such students, then they should also assume the costs to the wider society if those students then subsequently disappear into the ether so to speak. Introducing and enforcing such sanctions would be the only effective means of ensuring that acquiring a university education in the UK is not used as a backdoor to settlement in the country and the acquisition of citizenship.