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“The Home Office is stabbing us in the back” - UEA vice-chancellor’s warning over international student numbers

PUBLISHED: 07:00 02 February 2014

Edward Acton, UEA vice-chancellor. Picture: Denise Bradley

Edward Acton, UEA vice-chancellor. Picture: Denise Bradley


British students at the University of East Anglia will suffer if government rhetoric on immigration sees its number of international students fall, its vice-chancellor has warned.

First fall in international students

A total of 171,910 non-EU international students enrolled in UK universities in 2012-13, according to figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency last month.

This represented a 1pc drop on the previous year.

Chinese students were by far the largest group, numbering 56,535 - a rise of 6pc on the year before.

Students from India were the second largest at 12,280, but this figure represented a 25pc fall since 2011-12, and an almost-50pc drop over two years.

The United States was the only other country which sent more than 10,000 students to British universities.

Of the top ten countries, the biggest increase was in the number of people from Hong Kong, rising by 18pc to 6,305, while the number of Malaysian students rose 3pc to 8,045.

The number of students from Pakistan saw a similar fall to those from India, dropping 21pc to 3,660.

Prof Edward Acton spoke out after figures released last month showed the first decline in the number of non-EU international students studying in British universities.

He said that while Britain should be aiming to protect its market share at a time when other countries are increasing their efforts to attract overseas students, “the Home Office is stabbing us in the back”.

Prof Acton, who chairs a task force on student visas for lobbying group Universities UK, said overseas students are part of UEA’s main business, and if their numbers fell, the quality of what the UEA could deliver could go down.

He said: “If there is a decline, it would be very negative for home students. It would mean that unit costs would tend to go up, and there’s no country in the world where international students are currently a higher proportion than in Britain.”

However, he denied universities use international students, who pay higher tuition fees, as a “cash cow”, and said the higher costs of recruiting and supporting them reduced the financial advantage.

Prof Acton pointed to research that for every 10 international students, six British jobs are supported, suggesting that UEA’s 3,000 international students support 2,000 local jobs.

He said: “It is extremely good for the university. It means the culture is much more stimulating for home students. On the whole, British students are pretty cautious about going abroad. Another way of them becoming conscious of how rapidly the world is changing is for them to meet people from other countries. That also creates an environment that is more attractive for international staff.”

He said international students are vital for areas like engineering and energy, which are often seen as key parts of Norfolk’s economic future.

“One of the things that is very striking is that in several of the Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects, international students really are essential. There really are not enough Brits.”

He added: “On the whole, the demand for Stem subjects is strong in Asian countries. We are mustard-keen to educate more British students, but when that does not work you are very keen to draw from other markets.”

He said some taught post-graduate courses would be uneconomical without overseas students.

Prof Acton last month told Times High Education the policies of home secretary Theresa May had “butchered” the UK’s relationship with India.

Speaking to this paper, he said: “Our first response has been to increase our own investment and projecting the UEA internationally, and overcoming the handicap of the Home Office by more aggressive marketing, and we will go on doing that because we think it’s integral to a general international vision of education.

“But it’s a diversion of resources. We are opening an office in Malaysia primarily because of this. I suppose in a situation where this pressure stays in place we will find ourselves having to go to greater lengths to try to overcome it through marketing.”

He said had lobbied the government to take education visas out of migration statistics, and found business secretary Vince Cable and Norfolk MPs very supportive, but he had been met with “bluster” from the Home Office.

A Home Office spokesman earlier told Times Higher Education the government’s own figures showed a 7pc rise in student visa applications in 2013, and immigration minister Mark Harper said UK universities are “continuing to attract the brightest and best students from around the globe, and there is no limit on those allowed to study here”.

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