Theresa May’s war against higher education continues

After the much-anticipated publication of REF, higher education wonks might have been winding down for Christmas. However, Theresa May took the chance on Sunday to get into the season of goodwill set out her leadership credentials for June 2015, by informing the press of her intention for the Conservative Party’s next manifesto to include a pledge to kick out foreign students as soon as they graduate and introduce a shift to a ‘zero net student migration’ level.

Rather than being able to apply for other visas while still in the UK, foreign graduates would have to go home and apply to return. Universities would have to enforce this, risking fines or losing their sponsorship licence if they failed to take sufficient steps to enforce it.

What a festive gift for both international students and the higher education sector from the politician who warned over a decade ago that the Conservatives retained a reputation for being the ‘nasty party’. The mooted reforms are the latest in a series of initiatives from the Home Office that seem set to make universities (rather than the Home Office, CPS, MI5 or the Police) responsible for enforcing immigration policy and countering terrorism. Perhaps the Home Office should bring back its “GO HOME” vans and park them outside of graduation halls up and down the country. It makes a mockery of having a Government strategy on international education and Greg Clark’s pledge to ‘extend the most cordial of welcomes’ to overseas students from countries such as India.

The Sunday Times states that ‘May decided to act after official figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that 121,000 non-EU students entered the UK in the year to June but only 51,000 left, meaning 70,000 stayed behind in just one year’. The way that has been written, you’d think that the gap was a new and growing one. In fact, ONS data estimated 80,000 stayed in the year to June in the previous year, with 132,000 non-EU entering and 51,000 leaving up to June 2013.

The ensuing coverage of May’s policy from the Times of India and stories like this in the Bangalore Mirror, demonstrates the instant international ramifications of floating such ideas. It is also a proposal that has managed to alienate people across the domestic political spectrum, from UKIP MP Douglas Carswell to former Osborne SPAD turned tech lobbyist Guy Levin.

Such a policy could only damage the reputation of UK higher education internationally and the UK economy domestically. It should hardly need restating but overseas students contribute enormously to both our universities in particular and our economy more broadly, providing valuable education exports for a country with very few great industries left. International students provided 12.1% of the UK higher education sector’s income in 2012-13, a total of £3.5 billion according to Universities UK, and £10.7 billion of export earnings for the UK in 2011-12.

Their value at university is much wider though, bringing different ideas and perspectives that enrich education. It’s hard to think how bright, overseas students staying to work, pay taxes an contributing to our society could be seen as anything but a good thing for the country. International students can choose to go anywhere in the world and we would be lucky to get them in the first place with policies like this in force. So much for ‘winning the global race’.

As ever with a female Conservative politician, the comparison to Thatcher was made. The Sunday Times said May has ‘a touch of the Thatcher about her’ in their editorial criticising her policy proposal. However, Thatcher was the prime minister who oversaw the reforms that led to the strong numbers of international students coming to UK universities in the first place. I’ve previously written about how the Thatcher governments oversaw expanded regulation in the UK higher education system. Thatcher also made universities charge overseas students full cost tuition fees in the early 1980s. Of course the reform was a cost-cutting measure in a time of unprecedented austerity, rather than as part of a strategy to make higher education a major export industry. Thatcher had simultaneously warned the UK risked being ‘swamped’ with immigrants.

It did motivate others though – one academic, Antony Flew, writing for the Centre for Policy Studies in 1981, said that the change was one Conservatives should support: “Let Mrs Thatcher’s Britain become the educational services capital of the world: terms, of course, strictly cash.” Whatever the original motivations at play, it was this policy combined with chronic domestic underfunding of higher education and the many benefits brought by overseas students (which are undoubtedly not limited to additional institutional income), that have seen universities have expand their intake of overseas students ever since.

While May had previously spoken specifically of aiming to cut student numbers, the general recognition was at least that international students benefit us. Just the other week, William Hague said universities are a ‘crucial’ part of the UK’s soft power. In fact, it cuts across what May herself argued in a March 2013 speech, when she said:

“We have always been clear that we want Britain to attract the brightest and best talent from around the world… the top academics, the brightest students, the best businessmen, investors, skilled workers and entrepreneurs.”

The drive to reduce international student numbers is not even popular with the public – 59% believe the Government should not reduce their numbers ‘even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall’.

Depressingly, the policy is not actually all that new. In the last Conservative manifesto, the party pledged to ‘require that students must usually leave the country and reapply if they want to switch to another course or apply for a work permit.’ Election times bring out the worst in politicians and their parties, and with UKIP’s support continuing to hold up, the higher education sector needs to brace itself for further destructive ideas to appear before May. More importantly, it needs to be ready to fight them.

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