Up to a point. Ministers have been saying for many years that there is no cap on the number of students who can come to the UK under a tier 4 visa. That is not actually the problem. The things that have been standing in our way are features of the visa system that, frankly, make us uncompetitive compared with some of the other major destinations that international students choose to study in. A visa system that, for example, restricts the opportunity for international graduates to stay and work in the UK for a little bit post-graduation is, frankly, not that appealing when you compare it with the opportunities offered by Australia, Canada and the US.
There are other things the Government could do to make the system more welcoming. There have been some really quite positive signals in what Ministers have said recently about a willingness to look at the compliance system. We hear from prospective international students that they are put off by a feeling that the immigration system treats them with suspicion from the start, so we should look at things like credibility interviews and how they operate, decision making by entry clearance officers, and some of the compliance requirements on institutions, which require them to interact with international students in a way that can be rather off-putting.
All those things should be looked at, if for no other reason than that there are huge opportunities for the UK as one of the most popular destinations for international students. We are in a hugely privileged position, and at this particular moment in our national history we have the opportunity to open our doors to people at a very early stage in the development of their professional lives, to establish strong bonds and, in many cases, to leave a lasting legacy of affection for the UK. We could do with more of that, not less.
Education is also a hugely important source of export earnings for the UK. Although international students have value far beyond their financial or economic value to the UK, it is not trivial that this is an increasingly important export sector. The Government’s figures point to quite significant growth in our export earnings from education, which are now around £19 billion a year. We should be pursuing that opportunity, rather than tripping over our own feet. The new international education strategy announced in January is a great opportunity for the Government to get their policy aligned with their international ambitions. The visa system has to be part of that. There are some modest steps in the right direction, including in the White Paper, but we really think the Government should go a bit further than that.