Five reasons why the Migration Advisory Committee report is so disappointing

Nick Hillman explains why the much-anticipated UK review of overseas student policy gets it so wrong

September 11, 2018
Source: Getty

They have very odd things to say about including students in a net migration target

In fact, they are trying to ride two horses at the same time. First, they say there is no problem with including students in the target because most students leave the UK after their studies (which is true). Then, elsewhere, they say the government and educational institutions should continue to seek to increase the number of international students.

But, if you have a net target and you expand the number of arrivals now while the proportion of departures from the lower number of old arrivals stays the same, then the net number of migrants goes up because more people are arriving than leaving

That is the key reason why the sector has disliked students being in the government’s target: it hinders growth because it suggests the government is not truly committed to an increase in international student numbers and it does so at the very moment when our key competitors are extending their market share fast. It is almost unbelievable that the MAC have chosen to ignore this

The MAC is accountable only to the Home Office

Perhaps the single biggest reason why the UK is so out-of-kilter with our key competitors on international students is that we choose to give 100 per cent policy responsibility on student migration to our Home Office.

Our work on other countries’ higher education systems shows this is not what happens in other countries: they tend to share policy responsibility across a range of government departments that focus on trade, education, foreign relations and so on as well as whichever department looks after home affairs.

Imagine how absurd it would be if we were to give the Home Office sole policy responsibility over any other major UK export: ‘Yes, I know you want to export more of your UK-built Minis across the world, but the Home Secretary has unilaterally decided you can’t. Instead, we are going to include your Minis in a target we have adopted to reduce our highest-earning exports.’

The one thing everyone knows about recent Home Office migration policy is that is has been based on the concept of a ‘hostile environment’, which – almost unbelievably – is a term that does not seem to be mentioned once in the MAC report.

Many of us have had misplaced faith in the MAC process

Throughout their work, I have repeatedly said that the MAC are likely to follow the evidence, which is unusually one-sided on the issue of international students (who bring money, diversity and soft power to the UK). But it seems if you are a committee that is appointed by the Home Office, answerable to the Home Office and focused solely on labour market economics rather than education, you start and finish in a particular place.

If you doubt this, take a look at the recruitment processes for the MAC: when they recently added to their membership, the appointment panel was chaired by the director of immigration and border policy.

The process has been sub-optimal

In conjunction with Kaplan International Pathways and London Economics, HEPI produced the most detailed report we have ever published in January of this year. It looked at the net benefits to the UK of hosting international students, taking a conservative calculation of the benefits and an expansive definition of the costs, and produced date for every parliamentary constituency.

We believe it was the most detailed single submission to the MAC review and was referred to in many other organisations’ submissions. We sent it to the MAC, with the offer of a meeting to discuss the results. They didn’t even bother to send a reply; indeed, I am not sure they even bothered acknowledging it. And note that, despite the tight control over issuing such sensitive documents as today’s report, parts of the document were leaked to the two newspapers most likely to offer a sympathetic ear.

The battle will go on

Given the clear problems with the process and the conclusions in today’s report, there is zero chance of the higher education sector, parliamentarians and the wider public changing their mind and suddenly deciding that the international students who bring added vitality to our towns and cities are a bad thing.

It is true that educational organisations should, perhaps, have offered more constructive solutions to some concerns in the past, but the recent Universities UK proposal on post-study work visas shows that is now happening. Moreover, if our two main political parties are genuinely committed to the UK remaining an open, outward-looking, international and successful country after Brexit, what better way to do that than to make it clear we want to give people the chance to come and study at our educational institutions of all types?

In the context of Brexit, just think how powerful this anecdote from a different official report is. They are the words of a former Chinese PhD student who studied in the UK:

 "[You] have a friend down in China. [Cambridge UK is] my second hometown, always. When I have a negotiation with Bank of England, I always go kind of emotionally bonded. I feel like there’s a bridge between China and UK at my job in the Central Bank.

"When the Bank of England or other UK people visit me in my office or duty, I will [treat them] like family, quite like a kind of large family, like an old friend. Emotionally bonded."

Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. This piece was originally published on Hepi's website.

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Reader's comments (1)

Additionally MAC uses questionable evidence. Hobson's International Students Survey is used to talk about non-EU factors for choosing UK when the survey respondents for Hobson are EU and Non-EU combined. Clearly work visa concerns will be pushed lower when a big % of the respondents who are EU dont have to worry about it.