Universities minister seeks to protect UK's reputation with foreign students

The universities minister David Willetts today addressed a conference of UK universities in Keele and said that the government would be doing all it could to send out a message to international students that Britain still wants them to come and study in the UK.

Mr Willetts was speaking to a conference held by universities group Universities UK two weeks after the UK Border Agency, UKBA, revoked London Metropolitan University's Highly Trusted Sponsor status which entitled it to teach students from outside the European Economic Area. 2,600 international students will have to leave the UK, probably before the end of 2012, unless they can find alternative courses.

The decision led academics to warn the government that it was in danger of damaging the valuable export education market. Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, for example, warned that if Britain made it harder for overseas students to come to the UK, then they would go to Australia, Canada and the USA.

Mr Willetts said he was launching a £2m hardship fund for 'legitimate overseas students' who have been forced to abandon their courses at LMU. The National Union of Students has estimated that those students will face an average bill of £4,610 after finding and paying for a new course and paying for a new tier 4 student visa. An NUS spokesman said the fund would offer affected students 'scant relief'.

Mr Willetts told the conference that further action would be taken to protect the export education sector which, he said, raised £8bn per annum for the UK from the 400,000 overseas students studying in the country every year. He said that the Foreign Office was already spreading the message that the UK still welcomes students through its posts abroad. He said that the government was to launch a publicity drive in conjunction with Universities UK. Advertisements will be taken out in appropriate newspapers in target markets explaining the advantages of studying in the UK and telling students that they will be welcome.

Mr Willetts also said that there would be a change to the way that student numbers are presented when immigration figures are assembled by the Office of National Statistics. Over recent weeks, several parliamentary committees have called for students to be removed from immigration figures. Mr Willetts said that the government will not sanction this but said that, instead, that, in future, the figures will make it clear how many students contribute to the overall migration total when the net migration total figure is presented. The ONS will also provide an estimate of how many students have left the country having completed their studies. At present, no such figures are kept.

Commenting on Mr Willetts' proposals, a spokesman for The University Lecturers Union said that it seemed that the government had recognised the damage done to export education by its student visa policy. Universities UK said that it welcomed the change to the methodology for collecting immigration statistics but said that it wanted the government to go further and to remove students from the figures all together. The University and College Union also broadly welcomed the move but said that the government had already caused damage to the sector.

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