International students will be allowed to remain in the UK for two years after completing their university studies while seeking work in a sharp reversal by Boris Johnson of tight controls imposed by his predecessor as prime minister.
Mr Johnson said the “new route for international students to start their careers in the UK” would ensure the country was “open to the brightest and the best from across the globe to study and work”.
The move followed longstanding warnings from the higher education sector that tough immigration controls were undermining the appeal of studying in the UK at a time it is facing uncertainties over Brexit and rising competition from other countries.
The government’s own global education strategy unveiled earlier this year is founded on the aim to increase international student numbers by nearly a third to 600,000 over the coming decade to help boost annual exports generated by the sector from £20bn to £35bn.
Sajid Javid, the chancellor, also called for easing of the rules while running as a candidate to replace Theresa May in June. “It makes no sense to send some of the brightest and most enterprising people in the world straight home after their time here,” he wrote in the Financial Times.
Overseas students were allowed to stay and work in the UK for two years after graduation until Mrs May, then home secretary, in 2012 began a crackdown on immigration to try to meet the government’s target of keeping annual net migration to “the tens of thousands”.
The time that students can work after graduating was cut to four months and maintained during her time as prime minister, although the government earlier this year recognised that the new regime was causing problems and agreed to raise the limit to six months.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents the sector, said: “This is very positive news. Evidence shows that international students bring significant positive social outcomes to the UK as well as £26bn in economic contributions, but for too long the lack of post-study work opportunities in the UK has put us at a competitive disadvantage in attracting those students.”
Last year 156,000 non-EU students graduated from potentially eligible courses in the UK, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. About 40,000 such students a year had previously elected to stay under the old rules before the regime was changed by Mrs May.
Britain had the fourth highest share of international students among it student body — including from elsewhere in the EU — studying in tertiary education in 2017 among member countries of the OECD, according to data released on Tuesday. At 18 per cent, it ranked behind Luxembourg, Australia and New Zealand, and in line with Switzerland. Total numbers were 436,000, second after the US at 985,000.