Principal Thoughts: More should be done for international students and EEA workers in the UK

Posted on: 2018-10-08

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. In this edition, Ashley comments on the two recent reports by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which assessed the impact of international students and European Economic Area (EEA) migration on the UK, respectively, in the light of a looming Brexit. Ashley challenges the government to listen to the two reports’ evidence in changing policy to boost education, industry and the economy.

We must do more for international students and EU workers in the UK if we are to prosper economically with world-class higher education and industries intact after Brexit.

That is my conclusion from the two MAC reports published to great fanfare in the media and analysed by various commentators in the higher education and business communities.

The MAC – or the Migration Advisory Committee – was set up in 2007 and is an independent public body that advises the government on migration issues. Unsurprisingly, since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the MAC has been called upon more often to provide evidence which may support or contradict various groups’ arguments on immigration.

Two such highly sought-after reports requested by former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, over a year ago promptly surfaced within a week of each other last month to much excitement within the media and the affected work sectors.

The first of these reports was the MAC report on international students in the UK with an emphasis on the social and economic impact made by non-UK students.

The higher education sector eagerly awaited the release of this report, confident it would highlight the positive impact made by international students and support the sector’s call for this group to be excluded from official immigration figures being drawn up in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Such hopes were extinguished upon the release of the report as the generally positive evidence supplied by the MAC in support of international students’ impact on the UK was not replicated in the report’s recommendations which stopped short of advocating measures to protect the flow of international students into our universities.

Jessica Cole, the Head of Policy (Research and International) at the Russell Group, makes a strong argument on behalf of her employer and the higher education sector in general, in saying any restrictions on student mobility will negatively impact upon the sector. This is reflected within the MAC report itself with the admission: ‘any barriers to student mobility are likely to have a negative impact’.

Quite rightly, Jessica’s analysis points out the positives of the MAC report which include reference to the wide range of benefits international students bring to the UK economy and society, as well as research and education and the report’s recommendation to grow international student numbers.

Further analysis by Louis Coiffait, an Associate Editor at Wonkhe, selects the  recommendation of no cap on international students and evidence that international students support local employment and attract further spending from visiting friends and families as reasons to be positive about the report.

So, why in the face of such a positive assessment of international students on the UK did the report fail to advocate the necessary action which needs to be taken to support its very own recommendations? And where was the response to the various recommendations made by the higher education sector to futureproof its success? Where was the rationale for including students in the wider migration targets?

You may wonder why this report is of too much consequence to UCEM, being an online institution and therefore less affected by immigration policy on international students. It’s a fair question but, for one thing, UCEM is a higher education institution with its HQ in Reading and is therefore part of the fabric of the UK’s higher education sector – a point supported by our recent successful Office for Students registration application. UCEM is a stakeholder in higher education policy and is key to such discussions.

Secondly, a large proportion – roughly 35% – of our student population is non-UK and we wish to stand up for international students who are very important to us (this being a point I will return to later).

Also of relevance is the support of business and manufacturing groups to the higher education sector touched upon in Jessica’s article, which relates to creating a more welcoming message to prospective international students. At UCEM, we have a strong relationship with industry, and the collective business, manufacturing and university message demonstrates the importance of a functioning higher education sector supporting the UK’s business and economy, and vice-versa. If something impacts the industries within the Built Environment sector we support as an education provider, it matters.

The second MAC report looked at the impact of European Economic Area (EEA) migration to the UK. The big takeaway from the evidence provided in the report was that EEA migration neither has a positive nor negative impact on UK wages or employment. The migration also doesn’t negatively impact on the training of British workers. In simple terms, EEA migrants arrive to work in this country and life carries on as normal.

According to The Guardian’s article on the report, data supplied by Oxford Economics – a leader in global forecasting and quantitative analysis – revealed that the average EEA migrant contributed approximately £2,300 more to UK public finances than the average UK adult in 2016/17.

Despite this, the MAC report proposes a ban on work visas in the UK for foreign workers earning salaries less than £30,000 after Brexit. This would have huge ramifications for UK industries which rely on supposed ‘lesser skilled’ workers from the EEA.

The construction industry, already suffering from a skills shortage yet being set ambitious housebuilding and infrastructure targets, relies on a workforce with large swathes representing EEA countries. The proposed visa definition would add another barrier to the success of the industry in achieving the government’s aims. How can this be right?

Business leaders and higher education representatives alike have condemned the restrictive conclusions of the report, with Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders claiming it could cripple the building industry.

With such proposals being outlined ahead of Brexit, how will this change the fears from business and universities that prospective international students won’t feel welcome to enter these shores? There has already been a fall in EU migration to the UK since the Brexit vote. Will the workers needed to keep our industries ticking feel as positive about attempting to find employment here or will they look elsewhere to start their careers?

At UCEM, international students are a vital part of our student community. More than 95 countries are represented by our students, we have an office in our second largest market in Hong Kong and we also have several international representatives working on behalf of UCEM to point students in their locality to the programmes we offer.

Our commitment to international students won’t change and doesn’t need to because UCEM is an online institution, but we are also committed to seeing positive change in the UK in education and the Built Environment and quite simply, the MAC reports don’t adequately address both sectors’ concerns. We would love to see the students we support from other countries see the UK as a potential destination to use their expertise but the MAC reports indicate that such skills will more likely benefit foreign economies.

The evidence within the reports are there for all to see but I would call upon the UK government to recognise the importance of international students and EEA workers to the country and act accordingly.

It is no use burying your heads in the sand. Don’t ignore the evidence. Make the right decisions for the good of the UK’s higher education, business and economy.

After all, I don’t recall Brexit supporters voting to live in a poorer society. The evidence is there. Use it.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver accredited apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

To keep up-to-date with the latest UCEM news and blogs, as well as more general updates from the Built Environment, make sure you’re following us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.