How should international student numbers be regulated?

There’s something that I can't fathom about the sector's settled position on international students and immigration.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If we were to argue that students should be outside of the net migration figures – despite ONS making a good case against the simplicity of such an approach – treating students as educational tourists still requires that there is the capacity to give them a good experience.

In the traditional remainer/Brexiteer split, the latter argue pressure on services from high levels of migration, while the former argue no pressure at all because students are young, healthy and eventually leave.

But even if you’re framing higher education as temporary tourism, the point is that in a given academic year, there surely is finite capacity to house and support students and their families both within and around universities – especially when the rules require those students to be “in attendance”.

For a sector that professes to be concerned about booth student experience and place, as well as stressing the economic benefits of that tourism, the question is then whether and how you prevent overshooting the available capacity.

One answer is to suggest that students should be able to be free to make choices based on the capacity there, like when the diary booking page on the Alton Towers website has a red day. But no such reliable information is available.

There are no reliable data sets on housing availability and suitability, no staff-student ratios available for PGT provision, and policies on stuff like personal tutoring are either not reliably available or not actually followed. International students are text-book high-value yet highly-vulnerable consumers.

And just like a Bank Holiday in the Midlands, even if capacity is flashing red, some make the trip anyway.

Another answer is to somehow control who comes based on notions of “brightest and best” – but who would make those judgements? How?

One answer is for the government to develop student number controls for international students – where that “government” could be both local/regional as well as national. That would be just as controversial and problematic as the NIMBY-ism of housebuilding, but there is a theoretical democratic case for it.

Another option is to place supply side requirements or duties on recruiting providers to ensure quality, availability of support, availability of infrastructure and so on. But regulatory requirements/duties are weak, and the incentives to “over” recruit against capacities are very strong.

If it’s the case that there are “too many” students for the available capacity, I might for example reasonably ask the Home Office what on earth has gone wrong with its student sponsor compliance regime – which notionally is supposed to address educational quality, wider infrastructure and the pace of expansion when approving additional allocations of CAS.

Another idea, frequently floated by government, is to loosen recruitment restrictions for the “best” universities – but making those judgements is fraught with difficulty, and the government doesn’t appear to be able to decide if the “best” would mean those recruiting modestly and growing gently, or near the top of some made up metrics table.

If those solutions aren’t to your liking, that leaves you either with blunt demand-side restrictions which we got last week, or no restrictions at all. While rabid anti-immigration types are in the minority, far more accept that there should be controls of some sort – hence the matching of rhetoric between Starmer and Sunak last week. And even the “no borders” pro-immigration types I meet accept that international students shouldn’t be mugged off by universities or their agents.

Maybe some folks think that the sector’s job is just to argue against all regulation all the time as a counterweight to those who argue more restrictions all the time, but the optimist (or is it centrist Dad) in me thinks that one day we might be able to get beyond the binaries of the Brexit debate.

Basically, if a “no restrictions at all please” position sounds off – the question is if not demand-side, what kind of supply-side regulations or constraints should be there? Answers on a postcard (home) please.

2 responses to “How should international student numbers be regulated?

  1. The Home Office must have an answer, after all Amber Rudd charged them with coming up with a system “tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution” back in 2016.

    It’s just possible they didn’t find an answer…

  2. There has been regulation of international student numbers in the last ten years and it has made a difference.

    The education quality rules remove sponsor licences from FE colleges with “requires improvement” verdicts in Ofsted inspections (despite the fact that these inspections don’t cover international students). Meanwhile visa conditions and benefits vary by qualification level. Compliance visits have also resulted in occasional withdrawal of licences.

    The combined impact of these changes has reduced international student numbers in FE colleges which is a bit of an own goal in terms of reducing economic activity in some towns and also in terms of UK soft power (UK VET has a high reputation in some countries). Only 1% of UK international exports come from vocational education and training compared to more than 10% in equivalent figures published in Australia and Canada.

    Home Office regulations land differently on universities than they do in colleges but it’s not a stretch to anticipate similar approaches in future with a similar impact.

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