Fear over curbs on overseas students

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SHEFFIELD University this week stepped up the attack on Government plans for a clampdown on visas for overseas students, warning of the impact on standards of higher education and local economies.

International students at Sheffield and Hallam spend an estimated total of £90m a year - on top of £70m tuition fees - and it is feared the universities and the local economy and community will be hit.

Prof Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, this week asked the Home Office to think again.

He said: “Britain’s world class higher education system is at risk from these ill-judged reforms. Students from around the world, including increasingly from the economic giants of India and China, return home from our universities with a top-class education, but also real affection for Britain.

“By studying in the UK, these students bring in vital investment for universities and contribute millions to the economies of local communities. By using the one crude measure of English proficiency to tackle bogus students, the government is jeopardising universities and jobs that rely on them around the country.”

Prof Burnett urged the Home Office to seriously consider alternative policy solutions outlined in a think tank report by the CentreForum which warns that up to 12,000 jobs in education and another 12,000 in the wider economy could be put at risk by the “destructive and short-sighted” plans.

The Government is aiming to fulfil its pledge to reduce net migration from 200,000 to tens of thousands by 2015.

It wants to impose tougher English language requirements on overseas students, restrict their ability to work while studying, and limit graduates’ ability to bring in dependants.

Two-thirds of the non-EU migrants who enter the UK come on student visas. The Government says these students should be stopped from seamlessly moving into work in order to give British graduates the best chance of finding a job.

Vice-chancellors in Sheffield say proposed changes to immigration rules have already resulted in fewer applications from overseas students, and student leaders are also campaigning on the issue.

In a joint letter to MPs, Prof Burnett and Hallam vice-chancellor Philip Jones said: “If the changes are implemented as proposed, there will be very significant impacts on our international student recruitment efforts with immediate loss of income for both the universities in Sheffield, running into tens of millions of pounds.”

International students currently generate 12%, or £50m, of Sheffield University’s income. A quarter of its students are from overseas, coming from 128 countries, the most, by far, from China, followed by India, Malaysia, Japan and Nigeria.

Around 10% of students at Hallam are from overseas, generating £20.5m.

Chris Nicholson, CentreForum’s director and chief executive, said: “These students provide an immense financial, cultural and academic contribution to Britain’s universities.

“It is economic madness crudely to restrict student numbers in this haphazard way.”

Under the proposals, students from outside the European Union will face tougher tests of their mastery of the English language before being granted a visa.

Mr Nicholson added: “It is right to crack down on bogus colleges but simplistically hiking the English language requirement prevents British universities from attracting some of the very best international students – especially those studying maths, engineering and the sciences.”

The Government’s plans also aim to reform the current system that allows non-EU students to work in the UK for up to two years after completing their studies.

Removing that right will encourage many overseas students to look elsewhere for university places, critics argue.