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Students & Net migration targets

October 10, 2016

Following the Conservative party conference last week, the sector is reeling. It’s become clear that the government does not view higher education as an export success that should be supported in unqualified manner.

Amber Rudd, Home Secretary, announced a review of ‘the hundreds [sic] of different universities providing thousands of different courses across the country’ and whether the ‘generous offer’ of allowing universities to sponsor visas for international students ‘is really adding value to our economy’. This echoes comments I reposted on here last month – comments made in 2012 by Theresa May when she held Rudd’s post.

Rudd seems to see universities as good for attracting the ‘best talent’ to the UK, but is much less keen to see international fee-paying students as valued customers who can take their fees elsewhere. The final word of the next  pair of sentences struck me:

I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best. But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help.

It’s a strange choice of word, assuming somehow that non-UK students should be seen as opportunities for potential philanthropy (‘the deserving student’). She goes on:

So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses.

Is the point here to flag up to international students that they would be better off avoiding ‘low quality’ courses. Is identifying courses as such to be part of the second phase of the Teaching Excellence Framework?

At the same time, the government also reiterated its wish to bring net migration down to below 100.000 per annum and that student numbers would be included in that target.

Many commentators have noted that Nick Timothy, May’s advisor, wrote last year about targeting university students to hit that migration measure. In an article for the Telegraph, Timothy appeared to identify 100 000 students at colleges and ‘non-Russell Group universities’ who would lose out under the ‘student visa cap’ he proposed. (That would leave 70 000 at Russell Group universities).

The Home Office estimates that the number of foreign students at Oxford and Cambridge is a little more than 4,000, while there are about 66,000 at the remaining Russell Group universities. That leaves more than 95,000 foreign students at non-Russell Group universities and more than 18,000 attending colleges.

That’s a startling proposal with the potential to damage finances. University of the Arts London for example gets one third of its annual income from non-EU fees.

This looks like unthinking vandalism but there is more to Timothy’s analysis. His Telegraph article cites two practices employed by universities that he thinks bend the rules.

Some have formed partnerships with colleges to allow foreign students to work as they study, circumventing the tough rules designed to stop economic migrants masquerading as college students. Other universities – which are often based hundreds of miles away from the capital – have set up London campuses to attract foreign “students”, many of whom simply want to work in the UK.

London campuses were one of the very few HE policy issues mentioned in the 2015 Conservative part manifesto. They were opposed to them – though we’ve yet to see any concrete policy measure brought to bear. (And will any spotlight be turned on Warwick’s Business School in the Shard or Liverpool’s London site?)

The first point, though, is the one that may offer most insight to what’s going on. Students at ‘Hefce designated’ universities (what we would have called ‘publicly funded’ a year or so back) have the right to work while studying, those at private colleges do not. Students at different institutions also face different post-study visa conditions on the right to stay and find or maintain employment.

What Timothy has to mind is a form of partnership agreement whereby a ‘Hefce designated’ institution sponsors the students at another college (perhaps as part of a franchising or validation arrangement) so that the students come in to the country as students of the established partner for the purposes of the visa, but are taught at the private partner.

It is a deal of this kind that was bound up in the travails at London Metropolitan four years ago. Theresa May intervened as Home Secretary after learning of LMU’s deal to sponsor 5000 London School of Business & Finance students each year. LMU had its licence to bring in international students suspended and the deal with LSBF was cancelled shortly after.

Do Timothy and May think such practices are widespread? I’m not sure. But it is clear that partnership arrangements of all kinds are much less common amongst the Russell Group than other universities.

And it’s clear that Theresa May’s focus on rules and fairness in her second conference speech may start to cast some shade on higher education institutions that are seen to be gaming the system or not up to scratch.

(The nominal minister for HE, Jo Johnson, seemed to be caught unawares by Rudd’s speech. Before June, it was necessary to watch the Treasury to understand HE policy, now it’s the Prime Minister’s Office setting the agenda).

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