University leaders are calling for a new visa that allows international students to work in the UK for up to two years after they graduate.
Universities UK (UUK) announced the proposal ahead of its annual conference which starts on Tuesday in Sheffield.
In 2012, the Government scrapped the post-study work visa which had allowed international (non-EU) students to stay in the UK and work for up to two years after graduation.
Since 2011, countries such as Australia, Canada and the US have seen the number of international students enrolled in education increase significantly (45%, 57% and 40% respectively) while the UK has seen an increase of only 3%, UUK said.
However, the UK remains the second most popular destination for international students, after the US.
In the year 2016-2017, 442,375 international students made up 19% of all students registered at UK universities, comprising 6% from the EU and 13% from non-EU countries.
The US and Canada offer international graduates the opportunity to stay and work for up to three years after graduation, and Australia for up to four years.
Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter and chair of UUK’s international policy network, said: “We think it is what the country needs – it would send a hell of a signal about the role of the UK in the future world, as somewhere that was welcoming to students that they were welcome to stay on afterwards to work.”
He added: “We think the timing of this proposal is exactly right precisely because we think whatever happens in the next 29 weeks, the UK needs a message about the world.
“I have never met anyone who isn’t coming to Britain because of the details of Brexit – it’s ‘is the UK welcoming?’.
“What we are trying to do is put our offer on a par with our major competitors and to say that despite the trials and tribulations of Brexit, the UK and its universities are one of the great systems of the world.
“We see no reason why that simply should not be open to talented individuals. Especially when we now know that they come to study, maybe stay on a little bit to work, and then leave.
“It is not Brexit in terms of the details of Brexit – it is the hostile environment."
Asked why it was important to keep attracting international students, Sir Steve said it was necessary to keep the UK in second spot and to help fill the gap in the market.
The UUK proposal introduces a new, temporary global graduate talent visa.
Under the visa, all higher education institutions registered as Tier 4 sponsors would be able to sponsor their graduates to search for and gain work experience for up to two years without restriction on job level or salary, and without an employer sponsorship requirement.
Time spent on the new visa would not count towards settlement in the UK.
The call comes as a new poll from ComRes reveals increased support for international students and graduates in the UK.
Almost three-quarters (72%) of the 4,301 British adults polled think international students should be able to stay in the UK post-graduation for one year or more to gain work experience.
Stephen Isherwood, chief executive at the Institute of Student Employers, said: “Allowing talented international students to work for a period post-study in the UK will help employers, large and small, to fill skills gaps.
“As well as enabling growth, our universities will become more internationally competitive and it will mean that UK students can develop a global mindset too.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “There is no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the UK.
“We recognise the cultural and financial contribution which international students make to the UK, which is why we have developed an excellent post-study offer.
“Graduates can stay if they get a graduate level job, get an internship or apply to set up a business in the UK. Completing PhD students are also able to stay for an additional year to gain work experience or set up as an entrepreneur.”