INTERNATIONAL students bring over £37 billion net economic benefit to the UK, up almost 60% in six years. Most sectors of the economy can only dream of these growth rates in our post-Brexit times of stagnant growth and low productivity.

‘The benefits and costs of international higher education students to the UK economy’, a new report published today, proves that our ability to attract some of the world’s brightest and best talent is an extraordinary success story. Scotland is second only to London for attracting international students. Over 44,000 start their studies here each year, contributing over £4 billion net benefit to the Scottish economy.

Glasgow Central tops the UK constituency league table in the benefits generated by its 3060 international students. Together they contribute £292 million net benefit to the local economy, a whopping £2720 per local resident. Scotland claims a quarter of the top 20 UK constituencies benefitting from international students. Edinburgh East, Aberdeen North, Glasgow North and Dundee West each secure over £200 million net economic benefit from international students.

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Every single Scottish resident benefits by £750, the highest returns outside London. An average of £71 million of economic benefit per Scottish constituency is generated, and these figures don’t even include the additional contribution made by those who stay to work after completing their studies.

The benefits of international students are spread right across the UK, reflecting the spread of higher education institutions. It is a textbook case of successful levelling up.

In Scotland, international student fees have been crucial in making up the shortfall in universities income, by contributing to the costs of educating domestic Scottish students. International students also diversify our campuses, enrich the learning environment for home students, boost the UK’s research base and support the financial sustainability of our higher education sector.

However there are many nations out to lure the world’s best young talent. The UK’s offer needs nurtured. We have advantages: quality teaching; English; recognition of our qualifications and concentrated one-year masters programmes. But success is not assured as recent history shows. International students want the opportunity to try out their new skills in their host country.

The Fresh Talent scheme, pioneered in Scotland and providing the opportunity for international graduates to work here, was abolished in 2012. The Cameron and May Governments were ambivalent about international students and introduced surcharges and work restrictions while talking up a hostile environment, including removing the right of international graduates to gain post study work experience.

Predictably from 2012 to 2019 international student flows into the UK stagnated and the UK fell behind the US and Australia. The 2019 UK International Education Strategy, dedicated to raising numbers and crucially reintroducing poststudy work rights, saw growth return.

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Yet the UK Government has spent the last nine months threatening to put this success at risk. New restrictions are imminently expected curtailing the right of postgraduate students to bring their families with them whilst they are studying in the UK. International students have become unwitting footballs in a proxy debate about small boat crossing and the state of legal migration routes.

This report provides concrete evidence of the folly of jeopardising international student flows. Parents and prospective students around the globe hear the hostile rhetoric and worry about what rules will be in place if they choose the UK. This impacts the flow of talent and the ability of employers to source talent.

Behind the headline growth there has been a dramatic shift in sending countries. Pre pandemic commentators fretted about the number coming from China. As a result of Brexit and a change in funding arrangements in Scotland, EU numbers have plummeted. New demand is coming from South Asia and Africa. These new international students tend to be older, postgraduate and sometimes accompanied by family members.

Typically, international students come, gain work experience and go home. Under the old arrangements in place til 2012, 96% returned home. Under the new Graduate Scheme we can expect higher staying-on rates as the main sending countries change, but the fact remains that most international students want to study and return home, with some picking up work experience after graduation. A small minority will seek to remain and contribute to the economy gaining high skilled work supported by the relevant visa.

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This report conclusively demonstrates every part of the UK benefits from the presence of international students and every part of the UK will lose from cutting international students.

The recent accommodation and cost of living crises which have caused challenges for both domestic and international students can be tackled by effective joined-up working between central government, local government, private accommodation providers and universities. However, solutions can only be found with goodwill all round.

Currently the Home Office refuses to tell either universities or local government how many visas they have issued to family members of students travelling to study at their university or live in their area. Every community is left guessing about how many family members will arrive at the start of term. It is the antithesis of joined up government. It has damaged families, perplexed universities and made local government’s job infinitely harder. It is time for a fresh start to data sharing, cooperation and dialogue.

This report dwells on the economic impact of international students but beyond the raw numbers are the longer-term investment, business and trade links from hosting international students. And their contribution goes much wider, to global campuses, diverse communities and a huge boost to UK soft power globally.

International students return home as ambassadors for Scotland and the UK. They enjoy public support and improve our education system and our reputation globally. Some stay and contribute further to our growth. They deserve better than to be political footballs. Next week’s migration figures will show a rise in international students. The test is whether they still feel welcome here. If the next generation vote with their feet and go elsewhere, we will all lose.

Prof Wendy Alexander Vice Principal (International), University of Dundee Scottish Higher Education Trade & Investment Envoy