The political argument over international students is about much more than the economy

Policymakers do appreciate the contribution of international students – they just care about other things as well. Jonathan Simons breaks down the politics and asks what the HE sector can do about it

Jonathan is a partner and head of education at Public First

If I had a pound for everyone in the sector who asked me, baffled, why on earth the government has commissioned the MAC review, and does it realise the damage that it has done already, I’d be able to afford an international fee PGT course and have money left over to meet the skilled worker visa threshold.

I share the sector angst here. It seems to me, ironically, deeply unconservative to agitate for a short notice change with potentially significant long term effects – and to wave away concerns with the line that “it may cause financial pain for vice chancellors, but we need to take the decision on how many international students we admit out of their hands.”

But simply talking to ourselves isn’t going to address the situation. And, potentially, neither is expecting Labour to reverse things overnight were it to assume office.

To explore how this might pan out, it’s worth thinking about three things: what drives (some) Conservatives to want to make this change; where Labour are electorally on immigration; and what the sector can do.

What is driving the argument

It is worth reading (or at least flicking through) the Cherubim and Seraphim of Conservative thinking: the recent Onward piece co-authored by Nick Timothy, and the even more recent Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) piece authored by MPs Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien. Both pieces call for the graduate visa to be abolished, and Onward additionally argue for only high tariff universities to be able to offer any international student visas at all.

The arguments in both are strikingly similar, and although I disagree with them, it is worth understanding. The Conservative case against the current model of student migration is this: that as a country, we have unprecedented high flows of migrant numbers. This is both a problem for the country economically, in that it provides greater pressure on services, and “dilutes capital stock” in CPS’ words, especially when according to their data many migrants do not make a net positive contribution; and is a social issue, in that there is no social contract between state and citizens for such high flows of people to come in, and that such flows do change the nature of towns and communities.

Thinking specifically about international students, the argument runs that the majority of growth of such visas are to lower quality courses and from lower quality universities (I use their language here for simplicity), and that such students are unlikely to benefit the UK culturally, or economically.

At the heart of their concerns are that the graduate visa is being abused – a term that not coincidentally forms the basis of the MAC view – by effectively being a low wage work visa. If someone can come to this country and pay £15,000 for a one year PGT, and remain in the country for two years after that, doing relatively low wage labour, then the benefits of that accrue to the student, and the university, while the costs are borne by the wider community, the Exchequer, and the country. Even if such students are making a net positive economic contribution – and here I am editorialising because neither report actually takes on this argument – I think the authors would argue that it is not worth the social cost, nor does it account for wider dilution of capital stock.

Where Labour is on immigration

Many in the sector are pinning their hopes on an immediate change in weather following any change of government. And here I am also hopeful, in that shadow higher education minister Matt Western has been very clear that the rhetorical damage already being caused by uncertainty over future plans with visas can stop, and needs to stop.

In a scenario where there has been no actual change to the Graduate route, and instead this becomes a Conservative manifesto commitment, I do think that a Labour government that immediately changes the rhetoric of hostility to student visas – a change which can happen because, crucially, it costs them no money – could start to see an immediate partial reversal of declines to applicant numbers.

But let us imagine a scenario in which, in the dying embers of this Conservative government, a reduction in the time allowed via a graduate visa to a year or six months is rammed through. Would a Labour government reverse this? I am more pessimistic about that. And that is because of the splits in the Labour electoral coalition.

On the one hand, it is now an extraordinarily graduate level voting base. This chart shows how now almost half of people who say they intend to vote Labour have a degree – doubling since the 2005 election.

We know that graduate voters tend to be more socially liberal, as well as, all things being equal, much more sympathetic to the cause of higher education.

But set against that, the other half of Labour’s electoral coalition are not young, liberal graduates living in urban areas. They are older voters, without a degree, living predominantly in smaller towns in the North and the Midlands.

Labour is currently obsessed with this second group – especially those who voted for Boris Johnson in 2019, and many of whom voted Leave in 2016. Getting these switchers back counts double – a vote away from the Conservatives and towards Labour. Labour pollsters call this group “hero voters”.

And when we look at how the different halves of Labour’s electoral coalition line up on economic issues, and social issues, the story is very clear. On economics, almost all those intending to vote Labour are closely aligned. But on social and cultural issues – including immigration – they diverge sharply. (These charts, as well as the one above, are all taken from the same excellent Substack, here).

Just look at that bottom polling question on the top chart, about whether the UK should allow more migrants. Con to Lab switchers – the hero voters, in purple – are a long way away from what is called there the Labour base, of younger graduate voters. Whereas on the second chart, the purple and red dots are far closer.

This means that juggling the concerns of the two halves of the coalition is going to be a challenge for Labour. Given there is consensus on economic issues, that will be the priority – not wading into internal party fights on migration.

What the higher education sector can do

In the short term, the strategy is clear. Regardless of what a desired long term end state might be, the sector needs to argue that it is simply bad policymaking to make a huge change at short notice, especially in the absence of much data around abuse, or indeed without fully being able to see the impact of changes already made to curb student visa demand around dependents and increases to healthcare surcharges.

My question is more around the medium term – where, for argument’s sake, the Graduate route has been left unchanged, but public concern around overall migration numbers remains. I think there are five main priorities.

First, economics does matter – but only to a point. The fact that students do make an economic contribution is not really disputed (though Onward and CPS demur as to how extensive this benefit really is). The reason the economics is only useful to a point is that for those opposed to migration, the economics is largely irrelevant. We can structure our economy and society in many ways which may produce economic gain, but have social consequences. Their belief is that universities ought not to be dependent on the income from such students, and should find ways to wean themselves off it. So simply shouting louder and louder about the net economic benefit, and the way in which this supports universities, is likely to be of marginal use.

Second, though, where the money goes really does matter. I’ve been immensely struck in focus groups how even people who say migration control is really important to them, also accept that international students aid home students via cross subsidy, rather than take away places. Yes, they do worry about dilution of capital stock (though no one normal uses that phrase), but they are won over by discussion of the NHS surcharge. The sector has done well in being brave enough to directly take on the argument about supporting home students, and should continue to do so – and to explain what the impact is on public services locally.

Third, the sector needs to be more open about the student pathways. The MAC defines abuse of the system in a narrow and legalistic way – are students switching from student visas to health and care visas, how many are dropping out of universities and working in the grey economy – and there is indeed limited evidence for this.

But if one takes an example of a student here on a one year postgraduate taught course, whose directed learning consists of twelve to fifteen hours a week, for which teaching may well end after around six months of the year, on a course assessed by coursework not exams, for which the entry criteria are relatively low on both academic standards and English language proficiency, for which the student is not expected to be on campus much or at all, and after which they can then go and work, or stay in the country without working, for a further two years, then it is fair to say – is this actually the scenario for which a student visa is designed and one which most people would consider reasonable? If not, then the sector needs to own this, and challenge themselves as to whether they are offering a place that delivers wider value.

Fourth, and to return to a well worn theme I’ve expounded on the digital pages of Wonkhe for a while, the sector needs to be less squeamish about quality discussions. The slew of Sunday Times stories ultimately fell flat because the paper mistook foundation years and access programmes for first year undergraduate entry, but the reason the stories initially took flight is because the accusation – that quality is being sacrificed in a flight for cash – resonated.

It should not have taken the Sunday Times stories for action to be taken on some agents. It should not take the MAC for universities to explain how they ascertain quality in incoming students. It should not take UKVI crackdowns for universities to raise the bar on English language requirements. If we want to say that international students bring benefits even in “low tariff” universities or “low tariff” courses, we need to show that the quality bar is still being met.

And fifth, local is key. The one thing I was really taken by in the CPS report was a recommendation that in exchange for student visas, universities should commit to taking action to boost domestic skills supply – essentially a UK:international student match where for every visa issued, a university agrees to train a domestic student or other local people in local labour markets. I wouldn’t make it that mechanistic for a number of reasons, but just as the sector has shown that international students support home students, so too could it do more to show how international students support skill development and labour market needs, through for example supporting faculties and research programmes to exist that have wider spillover benefits.

The next few months will be an important time for the sector. We will need to separate signal from noise, and rhetoric from action. But in the medium term, the sector needs to own the debate around student migration, otherwise a future iteration of MAC may do it for us.

4 responses to “The political argument over international students is about much more than the economy

  1. “I think the authors would argue that it is not worth the social cost, nor does it account for wider dilution of capital stock”

    What does the term “social cost” mean there?

    1. In my area it’s a common gripe that locals are competing with students for jobs and housing. On top of general complaints about drunk students on nights out

  2. There seems to be some evidence that local students are going to universities closer to home (cost of living) so potentially a lot of student accommodation could be empty and local business have fewer people to chose from for all those part time jobs that help keep them going.

    There is also a link here to the tertiary system at a local level and how well schools etc are performing. This is particularly a concern in more deprived areas of the country who may have a university but a smaller pool of local students to recruit from.

    ‘Levelling up’ is not happening very quickly in these areas and some significant social issues here that need to be considered as part of the wider debate. Those who say ‘local good international bad’ are not going to help anyone in the medium to longer term. Like many things it is just not that simple.

  3. There was no evidence of any agent wrong doing in the Sunday Times articles. It was a complete farce. Some agents had staff who could and should have chosen their words more carefully but the reality is there was no miss-selling, I am bored to death of the conversation about agents. It’s a complete red herring, ironically one i currently welcome as it allows this govt to pretend to take alternative action post MAC.

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