International education: Creating a capital of people and ideas

Capital. People. Ideas. Three priorities to deliver higher productivity”. That’s according to the man who is now our Prime Minister.

Speaking at the annual Mais lecture delivered to the Bayes Business School at City, University of London, earlier this year when he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak set out his core principles for economic success. These are three pillars we can expect him to return to now that he holds the highest office in the country and seeks to repair a broken economy.

If the content of his lecture is anything to go by, we can see that immigration lies at the heart of the new Prime Minister’s vision for success. In it, he embraced progress towards the creation of “one of the world’s most attractive visa regimes for entrepreneurs and highly skilled people”, explicitly acknowledging that “nearly half of our STEM researchers in this country are immigrants and half of our most innovative companies have an immigrant founder.”

While the re-appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary on 25 October may appear to fly in the face of this philosophy given her recent attempts to curb the Government’s liberal migration policies, it is clear that the UK’s higher education and research sector now has a golden opportunity to make the case for the type of sustainable, highly-skilled immigration that is essential to boosting economic growth and helping the country achieve our ambitions – from becoming a science superpower right through to powering our NHS and other public services.

As an organisation representing the most globally and ethnically diverse university communities in the UK, at London Higher we are keen to put our members front and centre of the drive for talented immigration. Our International Education Strategy for London, released in October 2022, calls, among others, for a single entry study visa for incoming international students – specifically to maintain the UK’s global competitiveness and help our world-leading higher education and research sector remain the destination of choice for talented people from across the globe.

By removing the bureaucracy and cost for international applicants each time they wish to enroll on a course at a UK higher education institution, a single entry study visa will allow UK universities to attract the brightest and the best from across the world and bring down barriers to progression to postgraduate study and research – something which is essential for building a pipeline of talent to bolster UK research and development (R&D) and turbocharge spin-out business and innovation.

Together with the post-study-work visa, which the UK Government reintroduced in 2019, we argue that a single entry study visa will help keep UK higher education globally attractive and ensure our world-leading university sector can access the capital, people and ideas that the new Prime Minister rightly highlighted as being central to our nation’s success just eight months ago.

As the UK’s most global city, it also makes sense that London leads the charge for increased international education exports. As well as being home to the largest concentration of world-leading higher education institutions of anywhere in the world, the UK capital offers people unrivalled career prospects – whether it be starting a new company, the opportunity to work in the global financial hub of the City or to build a career in London’s globally-renowned creative industries and vibrant theatre district.

Keeping London open ultimately means keeping the UK open – to growth, investment and opportunity. Taking steps to increase international student footfall in London is not about pitting our capital against other UK regions, but it is about ensuring London remains at the forefront of the global race for talent and ideas and ahead of our international competitors. Plus, what comes to London does not stay in London – and all regions and parts of the UK have the opportunity to incentivise London’s graduates to take their talents to other towns and cities, bolstering the UK pipeline of high-level skills across all sectors and industries.

An International Education Strategy for London is ultimately an important step toward a much-needed update on the International Education Strategy for the country and will hopefully pave the way for other UK regions to work out how they too can devise plans that build on and complement the approach for the capital.

While these regional strategies may differ, there is one thing that the new Prime Minister and his Government could do to benefit us all: that is, remember the many benefits that skilled immigration has already brought to this country, and where it could take us if we keep building on our international education exports for the future.

This blog is written by Dr Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher. The International Education Strategy for London will be presented in more detail at the THE Campus Live conference at 2:30pm on 16 November. Join us and register here.