Onward wants to cut international recruitment

A new think-tank report calls for Student visas to be restricted to certain universities only

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Onward is the latest in a line of right-leaning think tanks to take a punt at coming up with a set of Conservative policies that both address the nation’s myriad problems and can get the party re-elected.

A Conservative Economy draws deep on expertise of one of the wizards behind the Theresa May era – Telegraph contributor Nick Timothy – and a former Centre for Social Justice wonk – Telegraph contributor Gavin Rice. None less than Michael Gove has knocked up a foreword.

There are an astonishing 138 pages, sprinkled lightly with footnotes and charts, suggesting (and I emphasise suggesting rather than actually implying) a genuine intellectual effort rather than something knocked up to get a load of cheap headlines on a Monday. Said cheap headlines, within my filter bubble at least, have focused on a plan to restrict Student visas to only the highest performing institutions, and the proposed abolition of the graduate visa (with graduates instead allowed to apply for a Skilled Worker visa).

Tariff data?

By highest performing institutions we mean, somewhat obliquely, those with the highest UCAS tariff. It is worth breaking that down a little: an institutional UCAS tariff is the average level 3 performance (A levels or equivalent level) demanded by a provider for main scheme entry in a given year. This does not relate to the grades that people entering said university actually hold.

The idea of an institutional “tariff” turns up a lot in data. For me, as an indicator of quality, it is largely useless. Applicants apply to courses, and there will be a huge variation in entry requirements between courses at a single provider. The canonical example would be a provider with a large nursing provision – nursing students tend to be mature, and thus the tariff ask is quite low, so the best thing the provider could do to rise up this particular ranking is close the nursing school.

Tariffs apply to undergraduate provision only – so a provider specialising in postgraduate provision (for example Cranfield or the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) would not have a UCAS tariff (and would thus be ineligible to recruit international postgraduates). I suppose it’s heartening that they didn’t use (or haven’t heard of?) TEF, LEO salary data, or (gods forbid) mission groups

Student journeys

Though the available data isn’t great (and is necessarily time-lagged), roughly six in ten of those from outside the EU on Study visas are reckoned to leave the UK within 12 months of graduation – and of those who stayed 59 per cent of those who got a degree stayed in the UK for postgraduate study. Given changes in international recruitment (in volume and source) in the last 6 years we can’t be certain that these assumptions still hold – we know for instance that behaviour is different based on where a student comes from, and we know that the number of dependants (now restricted to postgraduate research students only) is also linked to domicile.

People who worry about immigration will always worry about immigration – honestly, better data would be good but it is unlikely to shift the national mood. Given that the Graduate visa has only been available since 2021 (what little good quality official information there is available suggests that Graduate visa holders are predominantly working or intending to work, and working in graduate level jobs on around £20-30k a year salaries) it feels a little premature to decide that the scheme isn’t working. We will get some potentially useful Home Office data linked to salary on 14 May alongside the Migration Advisory Report on the Student visa.

The salary range is important, because minimum salaries for Skilled Worker visas are generally higher than that (outside of the Shortage Occupations List, which the Onward report wants to abolish despite the fact the government has already abolished it along with the 20 per cent “going rate discount” and replaced it with the Immigration Salary List) – higher, indeed, than most home graduate starting salaries.

Easy enough?

Of course, these policies would have a knock-on effect for the sector. The report recommends that:

Post-18 education should be reformed so universities and colleges are not dependent upon overseas students for income, and the country is no longer left with the skills shortages it suffers today.

It’s been almost seven years since Nick Timothy last tried to reform post-18 education, so I guess he is due another go. But there are scant clues as to how this is to be achieved. A separate section of the report suggests that:

Universities with a high UCAS tariff should continue to receive public subsidy for all courses through the student loan system but lower quality universities should be reformed into technical and vocational institutes offering only courses with added value. These should be funded either through the student loans process or a lifelong learning guarantee

So UCAS tariff, applied at the provider level, as a measure of quality again. The “best universities” would get subsidies for all courses via the student loan system, other providers should be reformed into technical and vocational institutes (as opposed to universities that offer technical and vocational qualifications, as they are currently). The others will only be allowed to offer courses with “added value” – this isn’t really properly defined but the implication is a link to salary (bad news for nursing schools again) – and funded via the student loans process (or a lifelong learning guarantee – which is the same thing).

On a related tip, Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) should be reformed into a way for employers and local tertiary providers to identify and meet skills needs within joined up regional industrial strategies. This is basically what LSIPs were designed to do back in 2022 – the twist is only STEM and technical/vocational courses would be permitted, which is bad news for employers with other skills needs.

5 responses to “Onward wants to cut international recruitment

  1. When previously challenged on their definition of “elite” universities, civil servants were most helpful in their response, “ones we have heard of”. God help us.

  2. I find it funny just how ridiculously utopian, unworkable and expensive these Tory plans to pointlessly cut the number of international students in the UK are. To meet their stupid and completely unreachable quota on immigration, they’re suggesting a regressive, colossally expensive and damaging reorganisation of not just HE but the entire British economy, including, it would seem, retraining millions of UK nationals. Sounds reasonable.

    The UCAS point thing is just a demonstration that every single metric they’ve come up with to hammer post-92s has actually ended up showing how high-performing they are, which is funny.

  3. It is a little unfair to say Nick Timothy *tried* to reform post-18 education.

    He was instrumental in the inclusion of a commitment to “a major review of funding across tertiary education” in the 2017 Conservative manifesto with the aim of introducing Alison Wolf’s idea for “a single lifetime tertiary education entitlement” and better quality higher technical qualifications in the belief that this – when combined with minimum entry requirements for degrees – would change incentives for students and providers sufficiently to deliver his vision for (what he believes to be) a more effective higher education system, with far fewer people studying degrees and far more people studying shorter higher technical courses more closely linked to employer requirements.

    The Augar Review – with Alison Wolf as the intellectual driver – delivered the desired recommendations which, eventually, were in large part accepted by government with cross-party support. The LLE is due to be implemented in 2025/26 and we shall see if it has the impact on the tertiary education sector which Nick Timothy hoped that it would, as he set out in this article back in in August 2017 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/16/higher-education-has-become-unsustainable-young-people-know/

  4. Discussing funding with a former DVC yesterday I can see this ending very badly, our Russell Group University makes a loss on everything across the board, teaching and research, only by having thousands of overseas students, with all the income that comes with them, does the University have enough money to deliver everything else, including UK student taught courses. The Government had better have funding available to replace the shortfall as unlike the ‘old’ Universities with huge land endowments and investments many newer, not just post ’92 universities, won’t survive if they don’t.

  5. After all who wants to be treated by someone who did a well funded vocational degree like medicine (but as the article helpfully pointed out, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will probably close as unable to recruit overseas students so that may cease to be a concern). What happens when something is high tariff and vocational at the same time? I’m sure they don’t want to cut funding to veterinary courses otherwise who will look after their polo ponies.

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