Conservative manifesto: a pledge to cut overseas student numbers?

John Morgan looks at the Tory manifesto pledge to keep students in net migration target and to hold ‘major review’ of tertiary funding

May 18, 2017
Theresa May

The Conservative Party election manifesto, published today, contains some remarkable things on overseas students – remarkably worrying for UK universities, that is.

There is also a single sentence that pledges a “major review of funding across tertiary education”. Does this herald a shift in funding away from higher education to technical and further education?

On overseas students, the remarkable thing is not just the pledge to “toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards”, in the section that reaffirms the Conservatives’ commitment to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”.

“We will expect students to leave the country at the end of their course, unless they meet new, higher requirements that allow them to work in Britain after their studies have concluded,” it adds.

The manifesto continues: “Overseas students will remain in the immigration statistics – in line with international definitions – and within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration.”

These pledges, combined, appear to signal a clear intent to reduce international student numbers.

No such wording on overseas students being in the scope of the policy to reduce net migration featured in the 2010 and 2015 manifesto sections on the net migration target. 

Such a manifesto pledge has no value in terms of voter appeal. A recent poll of 4,000 members of the public, carried out by ComRes for Universities UK, found that just 26 per cent of those questioned think of international students as immigrants “when thinking about government immigration policy”.

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There is no economic value to the policy. The manifesto statement amounts, in effect, to a commitment not just to reduce funding for the UK’s world-leading university sector, but to reduce income for local economies across the country – for the taxi drivers, restaurateurs and other businesses that benefit from the presence of international students. On- and off-campus spending by international students and their visitors generated £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy in 2014-15, according to research by Oxford Economics for UUK.

The only value in the policy is personal political value for Theresa May. The manifesto wording is a pre-emptive strike against any further attempts by the Lords to have students removed from the net migration target (as they did with an amendment to the then Higher Education and Research Bill that was thwarted by the government) and the willingness of Tory MPs to agitate on the issue (as many have done, from the back benches to the Cabinet). Where most manifesto pledges are about ideas, principles or a vision for government, this one is designed to save face for May and kill an argument that has come to embarrass her. It does not, however, resolve the important underlying issue.

Some vice-chancellors argue that more accurate figures on student migration will solve a lot of problems for universities by showing that students do not contribute significantly to net migration. The manifesto does not appear to want to wait around for that.

Universities taken to school

Elsewhere, the manifesto revives another policy widely condemned by universities: forcing them to run schools. “We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools,” the manifesto states.

The University of Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, previously called the plans a “distraction”. She told the BBC Today programme in September 2016 that there were “many wonderful teachers and headteachers throughout the country and I think it's frankly insulting to them to suggest that a university can come in and do what they are working very hard to do”. As with overseas students, this will be a point of acute tension between universities and May. 

Brighter spots?

There are also other policies related to higher education. There is a commitment to support “university investment funds” to help create spin-outs from research. “We want larger, aggregated funds to increase significantly the amounts invested in and by universities. We want universities to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research, through funds that are large enough to list, thereby giving British investors a chance to share in their success,” the manifesto says.

In a section on “stronger communities”, there are some words on the role of universities in their local and regional economies and societies: “Our institutions of education, old and new, will be critical to spreading [economic] success. It is why we will back new scientific and technical institutions. It is why we want to see universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy, sponsoring local schools and being creative about how they can open up opportunities for local people, especially those from ordinary working backgrounds.”

That could help to establish an exciting civic agenda for universities, encouraging them to think of their roles as anchor institutions, particularly in regions struggling with the toxic legacy of deindustrialisation (although forcing them to run schools is not a good way to do this).

 A 'major review' of funding

May had already outlined tentative plans to improve the quality of vocational education through institutes of technology. “We will establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England,” says the manifesto.

These will “provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines” and “will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great, including eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students. They will be able to gain royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education.”

The manifesto adds: “To ensure that further, technical and higher education institutions are treated fairly, we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money, is available across different routes and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country.”

That may prompt sharp intakes of breath at some universities. Given the existing balance of funding – and the kind of savage cuts already inflicted on further education under austerity – it would be hard to see anything other than an intent to divert resources away from universities.

The manifesto suggests that May will cut overseas student numbers, force universities to run schools despite their opposition and, possibly, cut their funding via a “major review”. May developed a sharp dislike of “the university lobbyists” (her phrase) as home secretary. Now she is prime minister, and the enmity is persisting and broadening in range.

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