The legal firm Pennington’s, who are experts in immigration law, suggested this week that the consultation itself could be illegal.
The Conservatives pledged to lower net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ in their General Election manifesto. Since taking office they have realized that through a quirk of data processing that counts student in net migration figures even though very few international students take up permanent residence in the UK, enacting this pledge would require drastic cuts to international student numbers.
International students contribute at least £8.5 billion to the UK economy annually. Most of them study at Masters and PhD level. Entire courses would be unsustainable without their fee income. Contrary to what the press would have us believe they do not take home students’ places. A multi-million pound government-funded policy initiative – the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI) – was created in 2006 with the express purpose of luring international students to the UK. Universities’ concern is with growth of international provision in competitor countries, and growing in-house provision in countries that have traditionally exported many of their students, such as China, both of which could dent the UK’s market share in international education. Cutting international student numbers makes no economic sense – it only damages the UK’s ability to compete in this most lucrative of markets.
Damian Green said yesterday that the aim was to reduce abuse of the system, citing examples of private colleges where two lecturers were assigned to over 900 students. But only one of UKBA’s proposals is aimed at tightening up regulation of private providers. Most of them – such as restricting courses available below degree level, raising English language requirements, insisting students return home to reapply for a new UK course, and removing the rights of dependants of students to work – would apply to all international students applying under the Tier 4 scheme, no matter what kind of institution they were studying in. UKBA’s proposals are a sledgehammer trying to crack a peanut.
Seen in this light, even the government’s response to Browne looks sane, given that it is at least underpinned by a guiding intellectual position. One may disagree entirely with the premise that putting funding in the hands of students will increase the quality of education provision. One may also have strong ideological distaste for the idea of a market in higher education, and grave concerns for the outcomes for participation and access to university in the UK.
But at least David Willetts has an intellectual position with which to disagree. Green’s position is based on nothing more than the desire to pander to sections of the British public who are genuinely concerned about immigration. By taking a hard line on immigration – to the extent that it actually harms the economic wellbeing of the country – Green is suggesting that he does not have respect for the capacity of the public to be able to get a grip on anything other than posturing and slogans.