A couple of years ago, after the Conservatives won the 2015 UK general election, a leading figure in the higher education sector told me to shut up about taking students out of the net migration target. The argument was lost, I was told, and it was time to focus on other things.
I disagreed then and I disagree now because it is a very rare sort of issue. In fact, it is the only divisive higher education issue that I have ever come across where all of the evidence is on one side of the debate. International students benefit the UK economically, educationally and in terms of soft power.
Sometimes, people are inclined to make this point by referring to a famous sketch in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, set in biblical times. In the film, someone asks: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” The response is a long list of benefits – roads, sewers, aqueducts and so on. But this is a poor reference point, because the Romans tended to bring war with them too.
In contrast, international students bring money, potential, skills and a global understanding.
So the news that the Home Office (or at least the home secretary Amber Rudd) may finally change position is very welcome. Since at least 2010, Home Office officials have been completely resistant to evidence on international students.
Indeed, when I worked as a political adviser in a different government department from 2010 to 2013, Home Office migration staff were the only civil servants I hated dealing with. There was no negotiation, no reasoning, no compromise.
They got their way for three reasons. First, because they had a home secretary, Theresa May, who lacked a local university in her constituency and had little sympathy for the higher education sector. Second, because David Cameron’s No 10 tended to back the Home Office against pretty much every other government department’s interests. Third, because George Osborne’s Treasury, while sympathetic to arguments for international students, was determined not to repeat the battles of the Blair/Brown years and so failed to wade in.
When Theresa May became prime minister, it seemed existing positions would harden. But, actually, the sunny uplands slowly came into view.
The Office for National Statistics proved that the overwhelming majority of international students come here, spend lots of money and then go home again – generally with warm thoughts about the UK. The risks of Brexit have also been under the microscope and welcoming international students is a good way to show that the UK remains open.
Moreover, the embattled position of the government has amplified the voices of those who want a new approach. Those voices now seem to include Amber Rudd, who is after all an optimistic, passionate and evidence-based politician.
The prime minister sometimes says that the UK just does what other countries do when it comes to international students. But, occasionally, we at the Higher Education Policy Institute undertake close studies of other countries’ higher education policies – recently, that includes Australia, New Zealand and Germany. In all of them, things are done differently. Above all, they are much better at rolling out the red carpet for international students.
In policymaking terms, the main difference seems to be that responsibility is shared across more than one government department. Our problem in the UK is not actually that the Home Office want to keep foreigners out of the UK; it is that they have enjoyed sole policy responsibility for international students and this has not been balanced against other interests. They should be one voice among many – not the only voice that matters.
This is the biggest systemic problem that we need to fix over the long term, but if the home secretary now plans to change direction, we should nonetheless party hard.
As a child in church one Sunday, during a lull between two verses of an Easter hymn, one of my sisters bellowed out: “I’m bored of all these hallelujahs!” After nearly a decade of waiting, if we are – finally – on the cusp of a change in approach, it is long overdue and should be met with a chorus of approval that will never get boring.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.