Credit: Adriana Luliano

Why limiting foreign student numbers would be a mistake

By Su Aydın

With the Tory government proposing a clamp on international student numbers, Su Aydın reflects on the benefits that foreign students bring to the UK.

Much like his short-lived predecessor Liz Truss, the new leader of the Conservative Party Rishi Sunak does not shy away from proposing controversial policies. One of his latest proposals stands to target international students who are hoping to study in the UK. Sunak proposes a clampdown on international student numbers studying “low-quality” degrees, as a method of bringing down net migration. What qualifies as a “low-quality” degree is yet to be defined, however, we have other numbers and figures that can show what this potential crackdown can mean for the UK. 

According to Universities UK, there are 2.66 million students in the UK with 590,000 of them being international students. Another analysis by Universities UK states that “just one year’s intake of incoming international students is worth £28.8 billion to the UK economy.” International students pay a very high price to come to the UK. To break this down, to a single international student coming to the University of Glasgow, it costs £363 to apply for a Tier 4 UK student visa, you also need to pay a health surcharge payment which is £1880 for a 4-year course as well as tuition fees which start from £23,520, without even taking into account the cost of living. International students also do not qualify for SAAS or the free university tuition in Scotland. 

Despite its cost, thousands of students still come to the UK to study and there are a lot of reasons for it. There are many universities in the UK, with 10 of them ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world according to Times Higher Education. Apart from its international rankings, UK universities can also offer students industry connections, high employability and other career opportunities. The UK also offers a much higher standard of living compared to the rest of the world on average. It even ranks #12 on the US News Quality of Life ranking and we can safely assume that the £28.8 billion that international students bring plays a role in this ranking. 

As an international student, this potential crackdown feels like another poor attempt from the Tory government to avoid accountability for their failures, and try to find a scapegoat for this country’s problems. Migrants in the UK seem to be a popular scapegoat at the moment, with migrants from all backgrounds being regularly targeted by the government. You would think that Brexit, inadequate attempts to solve the cost of living crisis, and back-to-back PM resignations, would be a starting point for discussions of this country’s issues, but the Conservative government would likely disagree with you. Instead, migration remains at the center of the discussion.

The United Kingdom benefits from foreigners coming to the country in many ways. A report from the Migration Advisory Committee said international students provide benefits “to local economies, to the public finances and in cross-subsiding research and the education of domestic students.” We don’t just help the economy but we also share our culture. International students in Glasgow play a huge role in shaping the culture of the city and promoting diversity. Immigrants have historically influenced Glasgow culture so much so that some of the most beloved and renowned aspects of Glaswegian culture come from the value that they bring. Losing the benefits that international students provide would be catastrophic, not only for the universities involved, but also the country as a whole because international students bring immense economic and cultural value, even if the current government refuses to acknowledge this.

International students studying “low-quality” degrees are not the only problem, in the Tory government’s view. According to Sunak’s official spokesperson, the solution to lower the immigration levels down also includes student-dependants who are the family members of the visa-holding student that are eligible to come to the UK with the student. The Independent reported that Home Secretary Suella Braverman even complained about foreign students “bringing in family members who can piggyback on to their student visa.” While it is true that Tier 4 visa holders can bring dependents, this is only in certain cases. The UK Government website, for instance, states that unless you are a government-sponsored student, you can’t bring dependents as an undergraduate student, and must at least be studying at the postgraduate level. The only individuals that can be classed as “dependents” are the students’ children or their partner. These applications, of course, also cost a significant amount of money, as well as time and stress. Suella Braverman’s claims are making it seem as if staying in the UK is an easy process for international students and their dependents: one that is cheap and not time-consuming at all. It’s ridiculous to claim that dependents are “piggybacking” when they are also paying for the process to enter this country, and have to go through a formal application process which gives them the necessary documentation.  A Tier 4 visa does not guarantee a permanent stay in the UK, yet it is consistently being targeted as if it does.

Although I only moved here in September 2021, I feel at home in Scotland. The discussion around immigration and the negative portrayal of international students feels frustrating. The UK is far from a perfect utopia for international students, but most of us come here because it offers us the promise of a better future. And for so many international students, like me, Glasgow is our home.  


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