The government could yet lean on global rankings for a definition of “brightest and best”

Rishi Sunak is said to be weighing up the idea of restricting post-study work to a subset of universities

Among the various subtle pieces of shade-throwing in the Migration Advisory Committee’s review of the Graduate route was the observation that UK government ministers and officials did not or could not provide a definition of what was meant by “brightest and best” – despite having asked the committee to adjudge whether current post-study work arrangements are “genuinely supporting” the UK’s attraction and retention of this hard-to-pin-down group.

Given this lack of clear guidance, and the committee’s scrupulousness elsewhere in sticking tight to its brief, what’s perhaps surprising is that the MAC did have a stab at modelling what this might have meant, taking the time to match Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies data with graduate visas – and then grouping these according to world league table positions (figure 1.5 in the review itself).

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The committee notes that this is an “imperfect proxy”, but for a group so committed to making sensible judgements around patchy data, “imperfect” is doing a huge amount of heavy lifting there. The idea that student or graduate “quality” maps in any sensible way to a random, proprietary bag of research metrics and reputation survey stats is surely for the birds.

The committee used the Times Higher Education world rankings for reasons best known to itself – chair Brian Bell seemed rather embarrassed about this at the press conference and noted that “other rankings are available”, failing to add that they all say completely different things.

Elsewhere MAC floats the idea of the Home Office gathering data on not just whether those on student visas complete their degrees, but also on what class they achieve. If this were to get consulted on one day, there is an interesting debate to be had about all the problems it poses – but at least it attempts to say something about students rather than institutions, and its presence in the recommendations raises further questions about why anyone thought that mentioning global rankings was any kind of sensible idea.

The day after the review came out, Brian Bell and his MAC colleague Madeleine Sumption were at the Home Affairs Committee talking about legal migration, and Bell dealt diplomatically with Conservative deputy chair James Daly’s insistence that post-study work should be restricted to those on the most expensive masters courses. But bringing world rankings into the equation is not really any better.

And the thing is, you could see it happen. It wasn’t only Jacob Rees-Mogg fixating on the supposed poor quality of those on the Graduate route in the aftermath of the review. The alternative of doing this by high/medium/low (undergraduate!) tariff is an equally dreadful idea, and much more fiddly to implement.

The Financial Times reports this morning that Rishi Sunak is “interested” in “crafting something along the lines of the existing High Potential Individual scheme.” This work visa is available to those who have graduated in any given year from institutions who appear – in that specific graduation year (sure, why not!) – in the top 50 of two of the three most established world rankings.

This doesn’t really affect UK universities – it’s a work visa, applying only to graduates of non-UK institutions – but it has enshrined the use of rankings into Home Office practice.

Despite the vast, vast majority of those working in UK higher education being very clear about the negative effect the rankings industry has had on research and careers, universities have allowed their influence to grow by submitting data to them and publicising their outcomes.

The calculation is always that any move away would have negative reputational and recruitment consequences, especially as other countries codify their use into law around, for example, prime access to the graduate labour market in China, or permission to set up transnational education partnerships in India. But rankings are only going to become more baked into the system and – if, as could potentially be the case for post-study work eligibility – not in ways that do the sector any favours. Limiting the Graduate route in this way would also herald the dawn of an even more intensive battle for universities to raise their rankings, with all the downsides this would bring.

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