HE is losing the war over international students – time to win the peace

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Another Tory Party Conference has been and gone and along with it, a fresh attack on universities’ rights to recruit international students. But this time feels different.

The prime opponent of continued international student recruitment now sits at the head of the Cabinet, with close allies at the Home Office and DfE, and a top advisor who has advocated new restrictions. As the Prime Minister explained in her speech this week, Brexit has created a new imperative and a new impetus to the particular brand of anti-immigrant, anti-evidence protectionism that she plans to deliver. The new policies, proposed by Amber Rudd the Home Secretary, are designed to limit international students coming to the UK further, by differentiating between the quality of course and institution to allow only the “best” to recruit.

Martin McQuillan’s condemnation of the latest turn in tone and policy has certainly struck a chord with Wonkhe’s readers, and rightly so. This is indeed “cheap dog whistle politics that will damage our universities’ reputation in the world beyond repair.” Like Brexit, it is an act of self-harm that flies in the face of evidence and reason.

Facts are dead, long live facts

Evidence and reason. Evidence and reason. Did you know that 59% of the UK public think that the government should not reduce international student numbers? We’ve got numbers and everything. Only 22% of the public think international students should count as migrants. That’s one in five. And international students generate £7.2 billion in export revenues. Economic growth, GDP, income, jobs – we don’t want to lose that.

It feels like everyone in higher education has been saying things to this effect for several years now. We’ve tried to get international students out of net migration figures. We’ve tried to defend post-study work visas. We’ve condemned the Home Office appointing itself as arbiters of quality and standards. We’ve argued that by attacking universities and their students, the government have completely missed the point about the general public’s concerns about immigration. But to what avail?

Since Amber Rudd’s speech on Tuesday, the response has been much the same. “Grim”, “ugly”, “xenophobic”, “racist”, “depressing”, are some of the words that have cropped up. Others cite “evidence” and “reason” and all the facts and figures above.

The tone of opposition and condemnation has been depressing in its own way for its resemblance to the messages projected by Remain campaigners, particularly within the HE sector. We don’t appear to have learned a great deal. Few people won an argument by calling their opponents racist or implying they are stupid. It’s possible to become just as tired listening to cries of “post-facts politics” as much as it is listening to post-facts politics itself. As Owen Jones observed astutely in a recent column, “university-educated middle-class professionals may take to Twitter to vent, but it is their cultural distance from working-class communities that May seeks to exploit”.

The use of polling to try and support the sector’s position only further underlines this cultural distance. It is oddly reminiscent of those who regularly cite polling in favour of renationalising the railways. Respondents might be in favour for the few seconds they considered the issue after being asked by a pollster, but that is probably the only time they’ve ever thought about it. Few voters will change their support because of the government’s policy towards international student recruitment.

The illusion of (or allusion to) control

In an excellent contribution to the New Statesman’s recent ‘New Times’ issue, Charles Leadbeater suggested that there were four broad responses to the existential challenges of the modern world: ‘anger’, ‘control’, ‘keep calm and carry on’, and ‘breaking through’.

The Cameron-Clegg years was typified by the ‘keep calm and carry on’ rule: trying to hold the centre, comfortable with contradiction and ambiguity. Brexit, however, has toppled this in the name of anger and a desire for greater control. Leadbeater anticipated Theresa May’s to be an extension of ‘keep calm’ politics, but this week has firmly shown how she wishes to take control. Clamping down on international student numbers is simply one way of appearing to demonstrate such control. Understanding this tendency is critical to understanding how to survive when it is applied.

Like it or not, we have entered a new paradigm

The decline of ‘sensible’, pragmatic, flexible, evidence-based politics across the Western world is demonstrating that ‘keep calm and carry on’ is no longer a sufficient answer for any political group seeking public goodwill. Up until now, universities have positioned (or at least appeared to position) themselves firmly within the ‘keep calm and carry on’ camp, but it is now clear that this outlook is in retreat, particularly within Westminster’s governing party.

Still, the pandering to popular demand for control is still only illusory. That international student migration as a subset of migration policy in which few take much interest is both to universities’ advantage as it is to their disadvantage.

So without being defeatist, there are still ways that universities might be able to minimise the damage that might be done. My suspicion is that Amber Rudd will get the necessary political traction needed from this announcement just by making it, before we ever come close to implementation. This is where the sector might find some wiggle room.

A wider net for “high-quality” institutions and courses might be cast than many fear. Perhaps the TEF Bronze level which almost everyone gets will be the threshold. And keeping responsibility for the TEF in DfE rather than the Home Office, might actually leave institutions with a more sympathetic hearing. Restrictions might be limited to current rates, and merely slow further expansion rather than cut existing numbers.

However, understanding the impulse for control in the post-Brexit UK, even if we disagree with it, is essential for our sector’s continued success. Merely poo-pooing it will not win universities many favours, and outright despair will guarantee a bad deal. It’s time to get on with the work of ensuring that a compromise settlement can be found before our worst fears really are realised.

5 thoughts on “HE is losing the war over international students – time to win the peace”

  1. Dan Cook says:

    Another tactic would be to argue for/develop/fund an enhanced outward mobility programme for UK students, to reduce the net impact of _student_ migrations.

  2. Pam Tatlow says:

    So what is the compromise that doesn’t prejudice the interests of universities and students or undermine the sector’s national quality assurance system ? Business leaders have made clear that the proposals for foreign workers are unacceptable. Time to draw a line in the sand too ?

  3. Pierre Purseigle says:

    Refusing to “poo-poo” the argument doesn’t mean we should accept it. Maybe it is time for the sector to stop relying on quiet lobbying and get truly political for a change. TEF, Immigration, etc., all those reforms are ideologically-driven and demand a political response.
    The sector has been way too quiet during and after the referendum, and that includes UCU’s spineless apparatchiks. By the time, everybody wakes up, you’ll find a lot of us foreign academics have moved on to more welcoming pastures.

  4. Jane Forster says:

    Justine Greening on Peston on Sunday yesterday suggested that this was a storm in a teacup – the announcement related “just” to unfinished business on sham colleges etc. We’ll have to wait for the consultation, and see.

  5. Ruth says:

    Whatever the details of the actual consultation, a strong message has once again been sent to potential students and staff overseas. The sector needs to make a strong and consistent case and to do so with others. Simply saying so to one another isn’t enough.

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