Gillian Keegan has signaled her disagreement with the Home Office’s plan to curb immigration by targeting overseas students, adding that the financial boost from international students to British universities was “extremely valuable”.
The Education Secretary said the university sector was something Britain “should be very proud of”, amid reports that the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, was considering reducing the number of international students coming to the UK or change of the terms of stay.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Keegan said: “It’s world-leading, a great advertisement for our country. We have a strategy that is heavily focused on revenue growth.”
He said he wanted to widen the amount of money Britain receives from education export revenue, programs run outside the UK through partner institutions, distance learning or international campuses, from £26bn to £35bn to the end of the decade.
The number of students enrolling on undergraduate and postgraduate courses at UK universities rose to 680,000 in 2022, higher than the government’s target of 600,000. It represents about a fifth of all students in higher education.
It is thought it may be part of a push by a government mired in the small boat crisis to reduce immigration numbers.
The FT reports that Keegan and Braverman met this week to discuss options, which include automatically qualifying foreign students for two-year work visas, where they have no requirement to find a job.
Under Braverman’s proposals, that would be reduced to six months, according to reports.
They also examined the current ability of students on supposedly “low value” courses to bring dependents to Britain, according to officials briefed on the meeting.
Keegan, who was appointed to the role by Rishi Sunak in October 2022, said she wanted to ensure it remained a high-quality “course offering” for students, but added she would help the Home Office root out any abuse of the system.
While the number of student visas fell sharply during the Covid pandemic, it has rebounded strongly to record the highest total since 2005.
It comes in a week where new figures from Ucas showed that applications from China to UK universities fell for the first time in more than a decade.
The Times reported that applications fell 4.2 percent this year, after rising year-on-year for the past 10 years.
The number peaked at almost 29,000 in 2021, but figures for applications starting in September 2023 showed it had fallen. Many universities depend heavily financially on tuition fees from international students, who often pay more for courses.
The fall comes amid a chill in UK-China relations, following the “golden age” of a relationship in the middle of the last decade.
Overall, the number of international applicants increased by 3.1%.