LONDON: British universities have called on the government for a "new immigration policy" to encourage international students to choose the UK after recent figures showed a "worrying decline" in the number of students from countries like India.
Universities UK, the representative body for higher education institutions, expressed concerns this week over a "worrying decline" in the number of international students coming to Britain due to a perception of being unwelcome.
It urged the British government to drop international students from its annual target of immigration cuts.
"While the UK government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers, adding to the perception that they are not welcome here," said Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent.
"If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK," she said.
In reference to the realities of Brexit, she said: "As the UK prepares to exit the EU, it is more important than ever that we project a welcoming message to talented people from across the world."
The most recent figures on international students in the UK showed a worrying decline in the number of new international enrolments over recent years, Goodfellow said. "At the same time, competitor countries such as the USA and Australia have seen increases. Both countries open their arms to international students and classify them as being non-permanent or temporary residents in their immigration systems."
Her comments followed a new ComRes poll commissioned by Universities UK which found that nearly 73 per cent of the British public were in favour of international students coming to study in the UK.
The poll released yesterday reveals that most members of the British public do not view international students as immigrants to the UK. The results show that only 26 per cent of the British public think of international students as immigrants when thinking about government immigration policy.
Goodfellow added: "It is clear that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. They come to the UK, study for a period, then the vast majority return home.
"The UK could be doing much better than this. The UK has the potential to be one of the world's fastest growing destinations for international students, building on its current status as the second most popular destination for international students [after the US]."
The public poll of over 4,000 adults conducted last month also found that 75 per cent of the British public agreed that international students should be able to work in the UK for a fixed period of time after they have graduated, seen as a major factor behind the drop in international student numbers in recent years.
The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), UK's official agency for the collection, analysis and dissemination of quantitative information about higher education, had revealed earlier this year that while Indians remain the third-largest category of students from outside the European Union, they registered a decrease of 9 per cent in 2015-16 over the previous year.
"India saw the largest percentage decrease, at 44 per cent between 2011/12 and 2015/16. In numbers, this meant that in 2015/16, the number of student enrolments domiciled from India was 13,150 less than in 2011/12. It is worth noting, however, that the decline in student enrolments domiciled from India began a year earlier, in 2010/11," the HESA said in its analysis.
Universities in the UK and other groups have been lobbying the government to ease its immigration policy towards students over the years. "Over the last five years, the number of Indian students attending UK universities has halved. I have consistently asked the government to remove students from the net migration target," said Lord Bilimoria, leading Indian-origin entrepreneur and Cobra Beer founder, who himself came to the UK as a student.
"We should immediately re-introduce the two-year post- study work visa, which I fought hard to introduce before its withdrawal in 2012, to allow foreign students to implement their much-needed skills here and help boost our economy," he added.