Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Shut that door!

One outcome of the election which seems very clear is the continuation of previous Home Office policy towards international students. This won’t be welcome news to universities.

Firstly, the Conservative manifesto:
We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.(p30, We will continue to cut immigration from outside the EU)
Secondly, the ministerial team: Theresa May reappointed as Home Secretary; James Brokenshire reappointed, but with a narrower brief, covering immigration only (in the last government he had responsibility for Immigration and Security). Both have proven unresponsive to lobbying on the question of overseas student numbers and their inclusion in the net migration targets.

There are three specific actions:

  • Reviewing the highly trusted sponsor (HTS) system, under which universities are allocated the right to sponsor a certain number of students
  • ‘Clamping down’ on satellite campuses in London – that is, London campuses operated by universities outside London. Presumably the argument is that away from the main administrative operation, there’s a greater risk that students will not be ‘genuine’ students, whatever that is held to mean
  • Placing more responsibility on sponsors for students who overstay their visas – presumably requiring universities to keep tabs on where their students are, and where necessary taking direct steps to ensure that they leave the UK when their visas expire.

My guess is that the first thing to happen will be the HTS review, which will lead to more stringent criteria for achieving highly trusted status. And several universities either having their HTS status withdrawn, or choosing not to reapply. I've posted before on the dependency of UK universities on overseas student fee income, and removal of HTS is likely to have real and deleterious consequences.

Is that what the fuss is really about?
And on the same theme, but more positively for universities, London First published today a report on the benefit to the UK of London-based international students. (See also the BBC news report.) Using what looks like a pretty rigorous methodology, PwC calculate that overseas students at London universities (not at satellite campuses, mark you) generate £2.8 billion annually for the UK economy, and draw on £540 million annually of public services, a net annual benefit of £2.3 billion.

The report is well worth reading, and makes some sensible recommendations to government including, crucially, not counting overseas students within the net migration total. The problem here is that the Conservative manifesto is very specific; it’s an area where 2010 manifesto commitments weren't met, leading to pressure to deliver this time; and the narrative is tied in with the question of Europe, and the in-out referendum. I’m fairly sure that the Prime Minister doesn't want to the UK to leave the EU; but he’s calculating that to win the referendum he needs to be seen to be tough.

Difficult times ahead. It would take a brave university to plan on growth in overseas student numbers; it might be wise to work on a few contingency plans too.

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