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Migration Advisory Committee - Call for Evidence on International Students

In 2017 the Migration Advisory Committee was commissioned by the Home Secretary to investigate the impact of international students. Details of the Call for Evidence can be found on the government website

The submission produced jointly by the Geological Society and University Geoscience UK can be found below:

Submitted 3 February 2017

1. This submission has been produced jointly by the Geological Society of London and University Geoscience UK.

  • The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia, regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.
  • University Geoscience UK is the subject association of Geoscience (geology, applied geology, Earth science, geophysics, geochemistry and some environmental science) departments/schools based within universities in the British Isles. It promotes discussion and exchange of information between departments and provides a point of contact between these and professional, government and quality control agencies.
  • It has not been possible to collect meaningful data on many of the questions posed in the call for evidence. This is in part because of the size and nature of the academic geoscience community. Many of the postgraduate courses in geoscience are highly specialised and technical but comparatively small in number compared to those in other disciplines and so useful granular data is difficult to obtain. We ask the committee to note the difficulty in collating statistically significant evidence in this area, the evidence presented below has been collected from academics and researchers in geoscience from institutions across the UK.
What impact does the payment of migrant student fees to the educational provider have?

2. Migrant student fees have a significant impact on higher education geoscience in the UK, at all levels, but most particularly at postgraduate level. A significant proportion of PhD and MSc students in the UK are from overseas, and they make a major contribution to maintaining the research base in UK geoscience including in a number of strategically important areas such as energy and natural resources (fulfilling roles that cannot be filled by UK graduates). The fees from migrant students attending UK taught MSc courses are vital for the viability of such programmes, and their continued enrolment on these courses is critical in maintaining the geoscience skills base, both in the UK and overseas.

How do migrant students affect the educational opportunities available to UK students?

3. As noted above, many of critical MSc programmes with smaller enrolment numbers are in part made viable because of enrolment from migrant students and the funding it draws.

4. The UK has a reputation for producing world-leading geoscientists trained to postgraduate level and many of these postgraduate MSc courses attract large numbers of migrant students, which ensures that a wider range of courses is available for UK students than would otherwise be the case. Across geoscience, many of the employment opportunities are high-value jobs requiring advanced technical expertise in geoscientific, engineering and other disciplines. Increasingly, a taught applied MSc is a de facto prerequisite for entry to many of these careers. Changes in immigration policy for international students could have a very damaging effect on the viability of many of these crucial Masters courses and have a negative impact on the UK skills base. By way of example, both ‘Hydrogeologist’ and ‘Petroleum Engineer’ appear on the current Shortage Occupation List maintained by the Home Office. For careers in both of these sub-disciplines of geoscience, a taught applied MSc is required for entry into the job market in these highly technical areas. Furthermore, geoscientists trained to masters level in the UK, for example in mining geology, are in great demand internationally - an opportunity which will be lost if this training provision is allowed to dwindle.

To what extent does the demand from migrant students for UK education dictate the supply of that education provision and the impact of this on UK students.

5. As detailed above, anecdotal evidence from a number of geoscience departments over the years suggests that the survival of many technical and specialised courses in geoscience is dependent on the enrolment of international students and the international fees that they draw. However, the picture around demand, enrolment and financial support for MSc courses is not uniform and the courses are subject to shifts in the wider economy such as the ebbs and flows of the oil and gas cycle. Enrolment numbers and course capacity is also small and so meaningful data on changes in enrolment is difficult to obtain.

What role do migrant students play in extending UK soft power and influence abroad?

6. International students that study in the UK are global ambassadors for UK higher education and research and those that join major companies in their home country are an excellent source of international research and training links. Overseas students who return to take up professional positions in their home country extend the influence of the UK by encouraging their colleagues and students to consider UK universities as destinations of choice. This is particularly true of mining geology skills which are in demand internationally and is an area where the UK has a well-respected teaching programme. Many UK mining geology graduates will take up jobs in international locations where they both extend the influence of UK institutions but also share and communicate ideas of best practice in the extractive sector. In addition, international alumni of UK universities provide invaluable points of contact for multi-national research projects. This is particularly true in geoscience which is composed of a highly mobile workforce. As alumni, many are also major contributors to endowment funding of UK universities.

7. International students in UK geoscience also play an important role in sharing and communicating ideas of best practice, particularly around themes of sustainable development, natural hazards, ethical and responsible working and other cross-border research areas. Geoscience plays a significant role at the international development/research interface where the UK government has directed significant additional funding in the current spending cycle through the Global Challenges Research Fund programme, particularly in natural hazard management and mitigation. An important part of such projects is capacity-building, which may require students from developing countries to visit or study in the UK: these students are an important link in the communication of best working and research practices in developing nations. The UK has an excellent track record in translating fundamental research into understanding risk to humans from natural processes (volcanoes, earthquakes through to pollution and climate change) and much of this is achieved by training migrant students who take these skills back home. Some respondents to this call for evidence support the idea that delivering technical training to international students from affected countries is one of the most important and effective contributions to sustainable development and hazard mitigation that the UK can make.

What are the broader labour market impacts of students transferring from Tier 4 to Tier 2 including on net migration and on shortage occupations?

8. We are not best placed to comment on the specifics of the current tiered immigration system but we include some more general points about the impact of the current system on processing international students. It is widely considered that the current system is too complicated and should be simplified; currently it causes unwarranted stress on overseas students which discourages overseas students from applying. Further visa restrictions are likely to make it harder to recruit; at a time of general cuts, growth or even maintaining income is likely to depend on the overseas market which his increasingly competitive.

9. A potentially unforeseen impact of a changing immigration system would be the implications for those universities and institutions that have set up campuses in international locations including those that operate degree programmes where part of the course is taken overseas as part of university exchanges. By way of example, the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh runs the ‘2 + 2 programme’, an agreement with several Chinese universities which allows students to study an Earth Science degree for two years in China and then transfer to the University of Edinburgh to complete a further two years of study. It is not clear how schemes such as this would be impacted by a post-Brexit immigration policy.

In addition, the MAC would like to receive evidence about what stakeholders think would happen in the event of there no longer being a demand from migrant students for UK education. The MAC would also like to have evidence about the impact of migrant students depending on the institutions and/or subject being studied – do different subject and different institutions generate different impacts?

Additional points and comments.

Immigration Policy and Geoscience

10. Many STEM subjects, and especially geosciences, involve extensive study outside of the UK as part of their programme (e.g. fieldwork, international conferences) and also collaborative work with industry (e.g. placements). Field skills in particular are essential for geoscience graduates, and developing these skills in a diverse range of landscapes and terrains makes it essential to include international destinations. Delays and/or concerns over visas arrangements can, at best, complicate matters and, at worse, prevent participation from overseas students (especially masters students where the study period is more limited). Virtually all UK Geoscience departments run international field courses, and these are vital components of university training at all levels but run the risk of being curtailed if changes to UK immigration regulations are reciprocated in other countries. Any shift in immigration policy that extends or further complicates the within the EU or further afield will put a significant strain on completion of fieldwork programmes and will have a knock-on effect on the skills training of UK and international students alike.

11. Exchange programmes, such as the scheme at the University of Edinburgh mentioned earlier, are an important feature of maintaining student diversity in UK Universities, and as many exchanges are organised on a reciprocal basis, any reduction in migrant student entry to UK universities via such programmes would have a knock-on effect on the opportunities available to UK students to study abroad during their degree.