MAC wasn’t a victory, but it was far from defeat

Much of the press coverage around the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report on international students last week focused on disappointment across the higher education sector. But, away from the headlines, how bad was it?   

Certainly, on the topic of post-study work rights this was a missed opportunity. We know that having options to stay and work for a limited period, once their studies are complete, is a major draw for foreign students. Developing a more competitive offer on post-study work would help the UK compete with the likes of the US, Canada, and Australia, which are growing their market share at a much faster rate. This would also put the UK in a better position to meet the government’s own target to increase education exports to £30 billion by 2020. Although the committee highlighted the importance of post-study work and suggested some tweaks to the UK’s offer, for many the report fell short in its recommendations, failing to back the introduction of a two-year graduate visa, and dashing hopes that have been raised by a timely campaign, led by UUK.

Nevertheless, there were many things in the report which we would do well to highlight. 

Benefits of international students

First, the MAC collated a fantastic evidence base on the wide range of benefits international students bring to our economy and society, as well as to research and education. Importantly, business and manufacturing groups joined the call from universities for the government to send a more positive and welcoming message to prospective international students. This evidence will be seen in Whitehall and, hopefully, acted on by ministers. It is helpful that it is refracted through the independent committee, adding weight to the arguments put forward by the sector.

Migration target

Second, the MAC has called into question the government’s target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. For a body such as this, and given the personal commitment of the Prime Minister to the target, this move is really rather bold.

Where there has been disappointment in the sector is that the committee has not come out in support for removing students from the target. What has been discussed less is the committee’s rationale for this decision, which is important. The principal reason the MAC makes this recommendation is because it’s too technically difficult to extract them from the overall International Passenger Survey data, on which the government’s target is currently based.

This is not the same as supporting the principle of including students in the target, which is effectively a political construct. On the contrary, the report says that, if international students hold a perception that the UK is unwelcoming, this “more likely comes from the existence of the target itself than the inclusion of students”.

This conclusion is important and should give those around the Cabinet table food for thought.

More, more, more

Third, the MAC has set a clear direction of travel: growth. They recommend that “the sector and government need to work in close partnership to grow numbers”. This is an opportunity and we should be putting forward to policymakers the practical ways to make it happen.

The Russell Group has already suggested ideas around streamlining the tier 4 student visa application process, simplifying the graduate entrepreneur visa route, and lowering the salary threshold for international graduates to secure work visas (to take account of regional and gender differences in average graduate pay). In addition to a better offer on post-study work, these changes would make the UK more globally competitive and attractive, with flow-on impacts for the economy and society.

The Brexit challenge

Finally, the MAC did not pull its punches on the challenges posed by Brexit for UK HE. In the committee’s own words, it does not see “any upside for the sector in leaving the EU: any barriers to student mobility are likely to have a negative impact”.

The mobility point is key for universities: EU nationals, including staff and students, are at the heart of UK campuses. At Russell Group universities, around a quarter of academic staff are from the EU. This movement of people and ideas is the lifeblood of the sector’s success.

The question of European migration is rising up the political agenda, with a second MAC report expected imminently on the value of European Economic Area workers to our economy. This will inform the long-promised Home Office White Paper, that will set out the immigration arrangements set to replace free movement once the Brexit transition period ends.

So the MAC was on the money in raising the danger of barriers. The government has already proposed that the UK’s “divorce” agreement with the EU should facilitate mobility of students. The Russell Group has proposed our own European Skills Permit  to protect the UK’s ability to attract European talent, while helping rebuild public confidence in the immigration system.

We are entering a new stage of the Brexit debate: how to replace free movement so that our economy and our society can continue to benefit from European migration. We hope the MAC will speak with similar candour in their next report.

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