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Rigging the game: imagining a two-tier visa system

With the government likely to propose creating different tiers for universities in international recruitment, David Morris looks at the different ways that this could be implemented, equitable or not.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

It has been several weeks since Amber Rudd announced the government’s plans for a further crackdown on higher education providers’ capacity to recruit international students, and we are still none-the-wiser as to what the Home Office plans to achieve or how they wish to go about it.

This could simply be due to the government realising what a mess they may have got themselves into, both politically and administratively. There has been considerable criticism from all political parties, as well as from businesses, columnists, educators, foreign governments (not least during the PM’s India visit last week) and more. Both the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary are known to be opposed to further restrictions.

A couple of weeks ago we published some analysis showing that using the TEF, which is the obvious vehicle for linking international recruitment restrictions to “quality”, would present serious political problems for the Home Office. Several Russell Group institutions are projected to attain only a Bronze rating. Yet the Home Office’s problem is that to use any measure other than TEF would be an implicit show of no confidence in DfE and Jo Johnson’s policy. To use TEF to reduce numbers in any meaningful way would cause massive disruption to many institutions that government are unlikely to want to punish.

It would simply be too difficult to stomach for the largely Russell Group-educated officials and politicians who will have to implement the policy, as well as the Russell Group-educated journalists, commentators and thought leaders who will trash them for it. Indeed, Rudd herself attended Edinburgh, a Russell Group university which looks vulnerable in the TEF and often performs relatively poorly in student satisfaction surveys.

Wonkhe even understands that one London-based Russell Group institution – famous as a pipeline for aspiring civil servants and a big recruiter of international students – may not even participate in TEF to avoid a Bronze rating. Can you guess which it is yet?

Picking apart the Minister’s words

Let’s go back to the Home Secretary’s speech, the only evidence upon which we have to base our wild, almost certainly inaccurate speculation:

We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country… 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.

The key phrases here are worth picking at one-by-one:

“Hundreds of different universities” – As Nick Hillman has pointed out, there are only (for now) roughly 150 universities in the UK. Yet there are hundreds of higher education providers that recruit international students, including FE and private colleges. Rudd’s statement gives us an ambiguous idea of the Home Office’s definition of the scope and size of the ‘problem’ they want to fix, and it also shows, as Hillman argues, that Whitehall doesn’t understand the HE sector.

“Our best universities” – Such terminology follows on from the above point. Rudd, her advisors and officials, will all have attended what they consider to be the “best universities”, primarily in the Russell Group. Any system that doesn’t include them in that group will almost simply be out of the question.

“And those that stick to the rules” – Hope for the non-Russell Group, perhaps? This suggests that the Home Office’s could simply use an old tactic of linking Highly Trusted Status to even more onerous rules on visa refusal rates. As Christina Slade recently noted for Wonkhe, there are not very many widespread differences in refusal rates across the sector.

“Best talent” – Perhaps the new rules will not be based around providers, but around students themselves instead? The Home Office could feasibly consider a minimum academic standard for international applicants in addition to a minimum level of English. Aside from being considered an attack on one traditional pillar of academic freedom (the right for academics to select who can and cannot study), it would be incredibly difficult for the department to administer centrally.

“Lower quality courses” – This suggests the department could take a course-by-course approach to restrictions, rather than institutional approach. Courses do indeed vary greatly by quality within institutions, but again, this would be almost impossible to administer. It is probably merely an accident of speech writing than a hint about serious policy.

Postgraduate conundrum…

Another challenge for the Home Office is that half of international students in the UK are studying for postgraduate qualifications. Though the government has mooted introducing a postgraduate TEF, there are limited recognised universal measures (or even proxy measures) of quality for postgraduate courses aside from the DLHE, and the voluntary PTES. Will it be right that universities’ ability to recruit postgraduates could be restricted by the perceived quality of their undergraduate offer?

REF – GPA intensity

One way to get around the TEF challenge, as well as possibly around the relevance of quality measures to postgraduate courses, could be for the REF to be the Home Office’s metric of choice for ‘best universities’. If using GPA intensity scores, this would have the advantage of protecting the Russell Group and old 1994 Group institutions. However, some of these institutions, most notably Cardiff University, focused their REF efforts on raw scores rather than intensity and would be dangerously on the bubble if intensity scores were used.

The move would also be crippling for new providers who do not enter the REF and ruin Jo Johnson’s hopes for creating more alternative providers, many of whom depend heavily on international recruitment. With the next REF results still not for five years, it would also be hard to sell to universities who entered the last REF on very different terms. A compromise measure could perhaps be to create a joint metric of TEF and REF scores – the league table to end all league tables.

Highly-skilled employment and salary outcomes

There has been some speculation that the highly skilled employment metric used in TEF could be another way for the Home Office to square this circle. Doing so would keep most of the pre-92s within the acceptable boundary and achieve the anticipated damage to the “low quality” post-92s (not my words, the governments…). There are other reasons why such a policy would be enormously difficult to justify. Firstly, there are significant qualms with the SOC classification of “highly skilled” jobs used by DLHE.

Secondly, it is generally acknowledged, and indeed was revealed in the recent IFS human capital study, that employment outcomes are as much (if not more) a product of pre-university class advantage than of university quality.

Thirdly, the data is a measure of UK students’ employment outcomes; what does it have to do with the right to recruit international students?

Finally, allowing international recruitment (and possibly post-study work visas) for only these institutions would ironically create more competition for these very same highly-skilled jobs for ‘the brightest and best’ British students and graduates. This would be a perverse outcome of a policy designed to reduce native anxieties about immigration.

A disclaimer

If the last week has told us anything, political punditry and speculation is all but useless. We simply do not know enough about the Home Office’s intentions after Amber Rudd’s speech, and the waters of provenance have been muddied further by the revelation since that she privately supported removing international students from net migration figures entirely. The final outcome will probably be as much determined by Downing Street as it will be by Marsham Street.

Indeed, the entire purpose of this speculative piece, as with my piece two weeks ago, has been to demonstrate just how barmy the outcomes are for the direction in which the government appears to be going. Even if I am incorrect in my assumption that jeopardizing the financial and reputational position of several prestigious Russell Group institutions is politically impossible (though the Russell Group’s hedged response to Rudd’s speech suggests I am not), the extent to which the government would be willing to shoot itself square in the foot is astonishing. Short of basing government policy around an elite self-selecting private members club (hardly a non-controversial option), there appears to be no politically acceptable way of achieving what we can guess might be the government’s intended aims.

As a result, my suspicion is that the Home Secretary understands this and that her conference speech was more political bluster than real policy. It is hard to find any proactive political pressure for reducing foreign student numbers outside No. 10, and it is much harder to find such pressure opposing it (including at the very top of government). Despite polling showing that the public is broadly in favour of maintaining foreign student numbers, we must also remember that the general anti-immigration tone of the Conservative Conference was incredibly popular, and the Tories have achieved near record polling leads since.

The dissonance between rhetoric and policy implementation might be quite easy to fudge. A hard or soft cap linked to quality, rather than outright bans on recruitment, might be being considered. This might be phased in to give universities time to adjust. This cap could even be just above present numbers so as to maintain the status quo rather than force cutting back but could be presented as a ‘victory’ in achieving ‘control’ on numbers. We can now only watch and wait for the coming Home Office consultation to see how the government will take all this forward.

3 responses to “Rigging the game: imagining a two-tier visa system

  1. Thanks for this David – good to see these issues examined in so much detail rather than being eclipsed by other recent madness. I particularly agree re. Postgrad issues. It’s perhaps telling that we already have a (largely) RG-centric visa pilot in play at Masters level. I had a go at thinking through some PG concerns for our blog recently, admittedly in less detail than you have here:

  2. Very helpful and careful piece. While most Russell Group universities are obviously cooperating with the TEF, even seeing it as a lever for reform, the long-term branding exercise of the Group itself seems to me to present challenges for the TEF’s clout and credibility, and has done since it was first announced. The recent nonsensical efforts to square circles on international students are perhaps serving to clarify these tensions sooner rather than later. More at:

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