The government recognised this fact back in 2019, with publication of an ambitious International Education Strategy, seeking to increase annual education exports to £35 billion per annum and global student intake to 600,000.

What a difference a few years makes. In recent months, we’ve heard a regrettable ramping up of rhetoric among some politicians intent on restricting access to our world-leading higher education institutions and English language schools. The trend has emerged at a moment when we should be doing all we can to arrest flatlining economic growth.

In December, the government announced plans for a formal review of the Graduate Visa, a route which enables UK-based global students to stay in the country for two years post course completion, and for up to three if they’ve attained a PHD. It formed a central part of the 2019 strategy, and was only introduced in 2021.

Plans for the review came amid enforcement of wider measures aimed at restricting access to opportunities in the UK. They include the removal of the right to bring dependents for international students and a significant jump in the salary threshold for skilled worker visas.

The result? A 37% drop in international acceptances for UK postgraduate courses at the start of this year compared to the same period in 2023, according to new stats from Enroly.

Corollary surveys show similar levels of drop-off in applications for other study visas.

Here at BusinessLDN, these figures are a real cause for concern – not just because we represent some of the world’s leading universities based in the capital, but because London’s success hinges on its ability to attract talented people from around the world.

For the UK economy more widely, a single cohort of international students is estimated to add more than £40bn to economic output over the course of their studies, with London being the single largest contributor.

Those who go on to work and start-up businesses create jobs in our local communities and contribute billions to the public purse in national insurance contributions, income tax and VAT.

For the sector, a prolonged fall in international student applications could push its funding model to breaking point.

UK universities are already struggling with funding challenges – tuition fees for domestic students have been frozen for the last five years – and many rely on international cohorts to cross-subsidise their domestic intake and bolster their valuable research output.

“When we spoke with a cross-section of our members in February, half said they have hired staff with the Graduate Visa”

Our research also shows that the Graduate Visa is valued by businesses across a range of industries, providing an opportunity to evaluate performance over two to three years before making longer-term commitments.

When we spoke with a cross-section of our members in February, half said they have hired staff with the Graduate Visa, and the same proportion said they plan to do so over the next 12 months. Nine in 10 of these firms said the Graduate Visa made it easier to hire from UK universities.

It’s the business community, then, not just the higher education sector, which is anxious about potential changes to the graduate route. This speculation comes at a cost, with the uncertainty already impacting UK university competitiveness.

Rather than continuing down this damaging path, policymakers should be mindful of the accelerating global race to attract talent and recommit to the 2019 International Education Strategy. Axing, pausing or heavily capping usage of the Graduate Visa would serve as a significant setback for our growth prospects, cultural dynamism and soft power.

As we edge closer to a general election here in the UK, politicians of all stripes should recognise and celebrate the contribution international students make to our economy and local communities.

The current anti-international rhetoric from certain quarters serves only to harm our global reputation as a place to learn, invest and do business.

About the author: Mark Hilton is Policy Delivery Director at BusinessLDN.

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