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Brain gain – the importance of our international student market

Authors: The Work Foundation Laurence Hopkins

30 May 2012

A public letter to the Prime Minister sent today and signed by 68 chancellors, governors and university presidents warns the government that its approach towards student visas is damaging the financial wellbeing of universities in the UK. But the damage is not just limited to universities; international students make important contributions to the UK economy through the innovation and skills they bring to businesses following the completion of their studies. What is termed ‘two-tier’ immigration is an important part of many industrialised countries’ skills systems and it should remain part of ours.

The call to revisit the approach to highly skilled migration due to its likely negative impact on the economy has come from all corners of the business world and from higher education.Unfortunately, unlike the U-turn on pasty VAT, the government is sticking with this policy. The issue is serious and has serious consequences. With respect to higher education, Nicola Dandridge, Universities UK (UUK) chief executive, said that the changes are already affecting the sector and that the UK is already losing market share in the face of growing competition globally. 

While the government understandably wants to address net migration, the main migration routes it has control over are the ones that are most important for UK Plc. Universities UK have suggested that the government remove student migration from the net migration target. At 250,000 a year this would almost reduce the net migration figure to zero. From hundreds of thousands to hundreds. Even Enoch Powell excluded international students from his definition of migrants in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

The toughening of regulations on students will also impact on the skills available in the labour market for employers. While the UK has high levels of unemployment there is still demand for highly skilled workers in a range of occupations and industries. International students comprise 31% of all engineering and technology students in the UK, 68% of full-time taught post-graduates, 50% of full-time research degree students and 48% of PhD students. Limiting their post-graduation options, either real or in terms of outside perception, will be a tragic loss for our vitally important knowledge economy.

International students are also key drivers of innovation. The Big Innovation Centre’s forthcoming report on highly skilled migration and skills, which I am co-authoring with Charles Levy, will highlight studies from the United States which show that:

  • an increase in international students increases patent applications and does so more than an increase in skilled immigration.
  • migrants entering the US with a student or trainee visa have better outcomes in terms of wages, patenting, commercialising and licensing patents than native higher education graduates.
  • an increase in ‘ethnic patenting’ in the US is strongly correlated with the admission of highly-skilled migrants through the H-1B Visa programme in the US.


The government needs to take another look at its policy regarding migration for the purposes of study. This does not necessarily require an embarrassing U-turn, especially given that the government has been good at massaging changes in other parts of the overall policy. It seems that the business and higher education lobbies are doing everything they can short of employing the services of the Greggs public affairs team, but whether the government does anything or not is anyone’s guess.


Laurence Hopkins is authoring forthcoming research from The Work Foundation  'Simply the best: the UK’s high skilled migrants'. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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