Gillian Keegan meets the Education Committee

What does the new education secretary make of all the noise over international students?

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Education secretary Gillian Keegan made her first appearance in front of the Commons Education Committee on Wednesday, and was happy to put on record that DfE is not considering restricting international students to supposed high quality providers, saying “you can’t believe everything you read in the papers”.

The government wants to continue to grow international student recruitment, she said, but “maybe expand the breadth of countries”.

She also was firm that the issue of international students needed to be separated from the “small boats” issue, harking back to her conversations in the Foreign Office about how universities contribute to the UK’s international standing.

On the issue of dependants, Conservative committee member Nick Fletcher reported that his constituents in Don Valley are very concerned about masters students bringing dependants with them (for PhD students he saw it as less of an issue).

Keegan was a little unclear on the stats here, saying that “the vast vast majority of international students are – probably – undergraduates not postgraduates”, but made the point that family members needed to demonstrate sufficient funds and pay towards NHS costs. “It’s a Home Office lead”, she said, rather than DfE, and suggested somewhat incorrectly that it’s likely a small number of international students who are bringing dependants.

DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood explained that the ability for international students to bring family members is vital for both attracting the best applicants, but also for diversification of recruitment:

If you look at the places where students are most ready to come without the ability to bring dependants – it’s China.

On the topic of medical schools – The Times at the weekend reported that British students are being “locked out” – minister and committee members alike seemed a bit unclear as to the issue, and it fell to new committee chair Robin Walker to set the record straight on what was actually going on:

There are new medical schools which don’t yet have any funded places, and there was a process of allocating places which was due to be run but was postponed as a result of Covid, which I think could be the solution to this problem – but I suspect it is more of a health problem than an education one.

There was also a question on why there was no longer a minister with a dedicated brief for universities. Keegan was fulsome in her praise for the value of universities – soft power, economic contribution – and said that further and higher education were both very important, and could work together more.

After twenty minutes of civil and – partially – informed conversation about universities, the committee turned to grammar schools, teacher pay, careers advice, and the teaching of issues around gender in schools.

On the topic of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – back in the Lords this evening for Report Stage – we heard nothing. This perhaps suggests that, under its new leadership, the committee feels that comparing universities to the Taliban is less of a priority. Though it’s still worth noting that the questions on international students were all based on newspaper articles from the last couple of weeks.

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