The question of taking international students out of the net migration target has raised its head again with last night’s House of Lords amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill. Recent reports even suggest that some Conservative MPs are considering rebelling on the issue during the ping-pong stage.
As we await the outcome of this latest attempt to change international student policy it is worth remembering that the sector is also bracing itself for the long awaited Home Office Consultation on Tier 4 regulations. This consultation was trailed back in October when the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, suggested that “student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution” in her Conservative Party Conference speech.
It feels like there has been significant movement in the Home Office’s thinking since October, not least following the Prime Minister’s trip to India where international student visas is believed to have been a key theme in many meetings. However with the consultation still to appear there are a few key issues to consider.
The principle of some differentiation between institutions is a good one. Those institutions posing the least risk to the immigration system should be rewarded with less burdensome regulations, and those that pose the highest risk should perhaps face increased scrutiny. This is especially true since Home Office regulations cover the whole education sector and not just higher education. Therefore, offering some of the rewards for compliance to other types of provider, whether in the FE or schools sectors, should be welcomed.
There has already been much written about the concerns of linking regulatory reward to the quality of the institution, especially if using measures such as TEF – not least since TEF is not (currently) UK-wide – and measuring quality across different education providers will be a challenge.
Viscount Younger stressed in a debate in the House of Lords in December that the intention is not to “limit an institution’s ability to recruit genuine international students based on its TEF rating or any other basis.” If the aim is therefore to improve compliance and reduce the risks to the immigration system, rather than limiting student numbers, then introducing other quality based metrics might feel arbitrary.
However, a core principle should be that since it is the institution that is either being more or less compliant it is the institution that should experience the benefit or punishment, rather than their students.
So, for example, giving the institution longer between compliance audits or not having to monitor students as closely might feel an appropriate approach, however punishing the student by not allowing teach-out, not allowing them to work whilst studying, or not being allowed to bring their family with them might feel less appropriate. These type of wide benefits should be held at a sector rather than institutional level.
It is also worth recognising that the higher education sector is now highly compliant to Home Office regulations. This should mean that the starting point for most institutions should be finding ways to further support these institutions attract genuine international students. As other parts of the education sector become more compliant so they should be rewarded as well.
Impacting institutions with smaller numbers of international students
However, whatever you think about the metrics used, it will be important not to introduce unintended consequences and to recognise the diversity of the sector. GuildHE represent many institutions with smaller numbers of international students. For these institutions their compliance data is likely to fluctuate more on an annual basis, with a couple of students having their visa refused being equivalent to several percentage points.
It is worth noting that there is a discretionary threshold of 50 CASs up to which the Home Office can look at the case, but with several of the institutions exceeding the visa refusal threshold having relatively few international students, it is worth questioning whether we should be creating a system where discretion is an inbuilt default.
As we think about the upcoming consultation, if the new differentiated system will have compliance data at its core it will be important to consider the impact on institutions with smaller numbers of international students, and whether the discretionary threshold should be increased. It is vital to mitigate against the detrimental impacts of data fluctuations through small samples.
We look forward to working with the Home Office to develop a sensible approach that is fit for the intended purpose.