Quality, compliance and international students doublespeak

Image: IKON

There are bad ideas in politics, and then there are the truly horrible ones. Amber Rudd’s suggestion at Conservative Party Conference that ability to recruit international students could be differentiated by the “best” universities and quality of courses, sent the sector into a tailspin. It is an almost too perfect ‘bad idea’ – impractical, wrong-headed, possibly illegal and facing near-unanimous opposition from the very second it was first uttered.

The implications would have been massive, and so we have been doing extensive work on the issue. It seemed a reasonable assumption that the TEF would be used to make these judgements, as it is the government’s high-profile new measure of quality. And so we modelled the impact of such a move, which shows the rough distribution of carnage that would be wrought. We showed where international students are in the UK and which institutions would stand to lose the most. We also considered all the other weird and whacky ways by which the government could find ways to create varying ability to recruit international students across the sector and spoiler alert: none of the options look very good at all.

And we haven’t been alone. Everyone interacting with the government in the past two months told the government that this idea would be hugely damaging and probably impossible to implement. And possibly open to challenge in the courts, as the unfair advantage given to some would surely lead to financial ruin for others: a bleak prospect for the whole sector, no matter where you sit in the league tables. I would go so far as to say that it is the worst policy suggestion made by a Cabinet Minister about UK HE in two decades. It was an ignominious start for a government who on coming to power plunged itself into battles on more fronts than can be counted, and in so doing, introduced itself to UK universities on a war-footing.

That the idea needs to be now killed off entirely is unarguable. The slow realisation in government seems to be the same, or so we hope. We have been promised a consultation on the proposals, which has so far not been forthcoming and shows no sign of immediate arrival – a tale tale sign of a government looking for another way out, and quite probably divided on the issue internally. The Department for Education won’t be happy about their TEF being misused in this way, and many if not most senior figures in government do not support the Prime Minister’s wider goal of reducing international students coming to the UK.

So last night’s Third Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill was an interesting moment. There was scant debate about the substance of the Bill, instead much of the discussion focussed on student finance and international students. Opposition MPs to their credit (even though it was off-topic), pressed Jo Johnson and pressed again, asking him to justify how the government could push ahead with Amber Rudd’s policy. He responded:

“We have no plans to introduce any cap on the number of non-EU students who can come to the UK to study. No decisions have been made on tailoring or differentiating non-EU student migration rules on the basis of the quality of the higher education institution, or on how that might be achieved…

“We want compliance to be a strong feature of our system. It is important that the sector should do all it can to be compliant with Home Office regulations… [the Home Secretary] mentioned compliance and quality. High-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same.”

No plans to introduce a cap is good news, but not surprising – a cap is not a subtle enough measure to achieve a reduction in international students as it would be an even stronger lighting-rod for opposition at home and abroad. No decisions about differentiating rules on the basis of quality…well that much is clear to us – see: lack of consultation. It is the second part of the answer which spiked my interest. If the government is looking for a way to back away from the idea, the policy could quite neatly pivot to a question of compliance.

If “high-quality institutions” and “compliant institutions” are “one and the same” as the Minister said in a moment of pure doublespeak, one could infer that the final proposals will not deviate too far from the fundamental status quo. I.e. that those that meet a quality threshold and are compliant can recruit international students. If high quality does not mean a Gold TEF award, or indeed any other current measure of teaching, then the final proposals are unlikely to be one of the worst case scenarios that we have been exploring. It’s a clever linguistic backflip that could save the government a great deal of trouble, although we’d need to watch very closely what, if any, changes are made to the compliance regime instead.

However, there are two problems with this theory which is why this is still only speculation. Firstly, the Minister could merely be repeating the current government position, genuinely in lieu of an internal agreement that is still pending. If this is the case, we shouldn’t read too much into the interesting Orwellian turns of phrase that now take their place alongside many others on the pages of Hansard.

Secondly and more seriously, Theresa May has committed herself to reducing migration and as we know, one of the few ways this can be easily achieved is by reducing international students coming to the UK. Amber Rudd’s rhetoric created such a panic in the sector because it was the first hard indication of how the government would finally go about setting about this ridiculous task with real purpose. I.e. that they would now go beyond dealing with matters of compliance, inventing a fantastical new mechanism with a very deliberate aim to disrupt the sector’s ability to recruit international students. Using “quality of courses”, “best universities” or “best talent” (Amber Rudd’s words) as justification for their ultimate goal of reducing international students would never have stacked up in policy or legal terms, but it would satisfy the wider ideological objectives. And if these are impossible to implement, it’s possible that stringent new compliance rules could be invented that achieve the same aim.

There are several reasons why Phillip Hammond thought this would be a bad idea when he was Foreign Secretary. As Chancellor, he has even more. His task is to prevent a post-Brexit slump in the UK economy, something ever more likely with fewer international students coming to the UK – and under the worst modelling, the outright failure of some universities. If a decision has not been reached yet, we can now only hope that Hammond and colleagues will win the argument – there’s little more the sector can say at this point to change minds.

But if a decision has already been made, it looks increasingly like the government is going to sidestep the Home Secretary’s speech to Conservative Party Conference and for once, the sector will welcome the doublespeak if it provides a way out of the nightmare.

UPDATE 23/11: The Times now has a report that the government is backing away from the original proposals and the consultation will be delayed until next year. The TEF option is said to still be on the table, but the paper lists other options being considered: 1) allowing students on “strategically important” courses from any part of the sector to be granted work visas after graduation and 2) incentivising foreign students to study courses that will be beneficial to the UK economy.

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