Gillian Keegan has signalled that she disagrees with the Home Office’s plan to cut migration by targeting overseas students, adding the financial boost from international students to British universities was “hugely valuable”.
The education secretary has said the university sector is something Britain “should be very proud of”, amid briefings that the home secretary, Suella Braverman, is considering looking at cutting the number of international students coming to the UK, or changing the terms of their stay.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Keegan said: “It’s world-leading, a great advert to our country. We have a strategy which is very much focused on growing the revenue.”
She said she wanted to expand the amount of money Britain gets from education export revenues, programmes that take place outside the UK through partner institutions, distance learning or international campuses, from £26bn to £35bn by the end of the decade.
The number of students enrolling for 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 that it may form part of a push by a government mired in the small boats crisis to cut immigration numbers.
The FT reports that Keegan and Braverman met this week to discuss options, which include the automatic qualification of international students for a two-year work visa, where they do not have any requirement to get a job.
Under Braverman’s proposals, this would be reduced to six months, reports have claimed.
They also examined the current ability for students on supposed “low-value” courses to bring dependants to Britain, according to officials who were briefed on the meeting.
Keegan, who was appointed to the role by Rishi Sunak in October 2022, said she wanted to ensure a high-quality “course offer” remained 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 rebounded strongly to post the highest total since 2005.
It comes in a week where new figures from Ucas showed that applications from China to UK universities have fallen for the first time in more than a decade.
The Times reported applications had decreased by 4.2% this year, after growth year-on-year for the past 10 years.
The number reached a peak of nearly 29,000 in 2021, but data for applications to start in September 2023 showed it had decreased. Many universities are financially heavily reliant on fees coming from international students, who often will pay more for courses.
The decline comes amid a chilling of UK and China relations, after the “golden age” of a relationship in the middle of the past decade.
Overall, the number of international candidates has grown by 3.1%.