Jo Johnson sorts out the international student problem

How lucky we are to have former ministers lending a hand in these difficult times

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

According to Johnson’s short FT piece, political support for international students peaked five years ago. You’ll recall that 2019 was one endless stream of celebration – with the government’s International Education Strategy representing the first time a recruitment target had been set, and an expansion (live from 2020-21, following the Conservative decision to scrap the previous route in 2012) to the availability of straightforward post-study work visas for international students.

But that’s all changing. International students, it seems, are only now becoming caught up in a “toxic debate” about immigration – charged with lowering academic standards and taking places that should, by divine right, be reserved for the stout and noble sons and daughters of Albion.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, a peer who takes the government whip, is concerned that this government will over-correct – restricting numbers and diminishing attractiveness (especially among international students foolish enough to have families) at precisely the moment demand is apparently plummeting (which, in aggregate it is not).

But never fear – he has a five point plan. And we all know how well these have traditionally worked for the Conservative Party).

First, universities need more money. Whichever incompetent passed the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act left it up to the Secretary of State to adjust fee limits each year rather than causing it to happen automatically. As successive ministers for higher education have been notable by their clear-sighted focus on the long-term stability of the university system, this has happened a grand total of once (the first time – and then only to get people interested in the Teaching Excellence Framework). Giving universities more money, of course, is entirely straightforward – there’s no current constraints on government spending, and it would be politically very straightforward to ignore all of the other public sector claims.

Then, our independent trading nation should decisively break with international standards on recording immigration data (I think this means we leave the UN, but I’ve not checked as I don’t want to give David Frost any ideas) and not record student visas as a part of total net migration. Clearly, people are only concerned with what the statistics say – and if international students aren’t in this data then the glaring absence of accommodation available to them in university towns will just turn out to be a figment of our fevered imagination, causing no local capacity issues whatsoever.

Entry requirements for international students, forthwith, should be comparable to domestic ones. Alas, very few international students do A levels – indeed, most come from radically different educational systems with different expectations as to the length and timing of tertiary education. The OECD may believe it can fairly compare outcomes across systems – people that work in admissions know it is more of a (high stakes) art than a science. In a wonderfully catty aside we learn:

it should, in theory, be a low-cost commitment, as universities claim to be doing it already

Linked to this, Johnson has a touching faith that universities make offers based on advertised grades alone, and is keen that they publish real entry grades broken down separated out by the domicile that students actually hold. Discover Uni, a little-known university comparison tool sponsored by the government at the time he was minister, actually does most of this (not the domicile bit) to widespread apathy – a success soon to be repeated by UCAS, who are rolling out this data to offer to students for the next cycle.

Nothing, of course, happens in the sector without the Office for Students knowing about it – so universities will need to submit an annual statement about international student recruitment plans. An annual return similar, for instance, to the financial forecast that universities already submit to the beleaguered regulator which contains detailed information about international recruitment plans.

Johnson is widely regarded as one of the most able higher education ministers of recent times – a David Willetts, if you will, for the Theresa May years. As such I was surprised by how lightweight this set of solutions is.

But then I realised that he is playing five-dimensional chess with his mind – this is a set of solutions that will prove impossible to implement and would make little difference if they were. It is the perfect plan of action for the current government to attempt to engage in if it is to avoid actively making things worse. Bravo.

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