Immigration Debates in Several Countries Heighten Scrutiny of International Students Worldwide

November 12, 2012

Immigration moved to the forefront of the political discussion in more than one country over the past year, increasing public attention on international students in destinations that include Britain, Canada, and Australia.

Britain, which attracts more overseas students than any country but the United States, set a largely negative tone. Its coalition government has pledged to reduce the number of immigrants, and, despite intense lobbying by universities, has chosen to include students in those figures.

The British government's recent elimination of the so-called work entitlement for foreign students at private institutions, in a bid to eliminate abuses by universities that primarily enrolled students whose main goal was to work illegally, has had an impact on legitimate institutions as well.

Some 100 private universities that enrolled foreign students studying for two-year degrees offered in collaboration with universities or students aiming to transfer to universities have closed down in the past year, says Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs. While the crackdown has eliminated bogus institutions, it has also affected many that "were quite good," he says.

Although foreign enrollments at public universities have held relatively steady, they are unlikely to grow significantly, Mr. Scott says. And there are worries that the crackdown on private institutions will have a ripple effect, as one source of potential students has essentially been eliminated.

"We've had a peculiar year in terms of publicity and perceptions," says Mr. Scott. The feel-good factor generated by the success of the summer Olympics, which put such a positive spotlight on Britain, quickly gave way to what he calls the "bottom of the pit," with the headline-grabbing reverberations from the government's late-August revocation of London Metropolitan University's license to enroll foreign students.

Canada, by contrast, has been sending out positive signals to international students. It still draws far fewer of them than its main competitors do, with just 2.7 percent of the global total, according to Unesco. And it spends much less in marketing itself as a study destination than do other countries. But it is slowly becoming a contender, posting double-digit increases in international student numbers since 2008.

One reason is that Canada has made it easier for foreign students to work, both while studying and after graduation. Working graduates, for example, can apply to stay permanently. Doctoral students can apply for residency under the skilled-worker designation. Since 2008, only about 7,000 foreign students have become permanent residents, but the government says it wants to see 200,000 students stay over the next decade.

While those involved in Canadian international education say they are gratified by the sector's gains, they warn that the situation could reverse suddenly if the perception of the country's welcome changes. "We shouldn't be complacent," says Jennifer Humphries, vice president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. "Canada is riding the wave, but we could plunge, so we have to have our surfing lessons down pat."

Australia offers an example of some of the pitfalls. It ranks third after the United States and Britain in attracting international students, on whom its universities rely heavily for income. But enrollments have declined this year, probably because of a strong Australian dollar and a reduction in the number of students coming from China, the largest sending country. Those factors have heightened concern about how dependent Australia's universities are on international students and have raised questions about the country's broader relationship with its Asian neighbors.

Especially in Asia, Australia is seen by many as a dominantly Anglo-Saxon country that remains resistant to immigration. A new visa system, which puts the burden of establishing the "genuineness" of international-student applicants on university staff rather than on border officials, has stoked concerns among international students about how welcome they will be and their ability to stay and work after graduation.


Karen Birchard contributed to this article from Canada.