A response to Lord Lucas: it's not just universities who have Home Office doubts

Pam Tatlow writes in defence of modern universities, and the way they work with the Home Office to further the UK's interests overseas

May 23, 2017

Dear Lord Lucas, 

Thank you as ever for your advice. Your support in the House of Lords and elsewhere continues to be invaluable but please can we, as modern universities, provide you with some reassurances. Our universities are all engaged in constructive working relationships with the Home Office and its officials.

Understandably, these officials have to respond to ministerial initiatives and to party conference speeches, the contents of which are not always subject to detailed prior scrutiny as to their impact or practicality so it’s not all plain sailing. It is also the case that officials in all departments now allude, in entirely appropriate and civil service terms, to the role of "the centre" in decision-making. We leave you to draw your own conclusions about what this means. 

As it happens, we have objected to the principle of visa differentiation although no modern universities were invited to be part of the pilot. There are good reasons why further differentiation in the regimes applied to universities should be subject to much greater scrutiny. Although institutional visa refusal rates have been reduced to 10 per cent, they remain highly dependent on the quality of the decision-making of Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs).

These judgements are exercised in the 100,000 and more credibility interviews undertaken each year by ECOs – interviews announced by the prime minister at a Tory Party Conference when she was Home Secretary. Unlike refusals for administrative reasons (eg. a student has not submitted the correct papers), credibility interviews result in ECOs making valued judgments about who is, and is not, a "genuine" student. 

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the quality of ECO decision-making is not altogether good, and that the system is not as transparent as it needs to be to support the application of more visa differentiation between universities. Moreover, only individual students have a right to appeal the ECO’s decision that they are not a genuine student.

Given that these are valued judgements and students are overseas, appeals are both difficult in principle and practice. The potential for unfairness was laid bare in R (Mushtaq) v ECO, Islamabad (IJR 2015), a case in which the president of the Upper Tribunal was highly critical of the quality of the ECO’s decision-making and gave a strong ruling in favour of a student applicant. 

Of course, you are right to suggest that since 2010, Home Office policy and pronouncements have become more difficult for universities. Here we are not alone. Five business groups, including the Confederation of British Industry, are none too happy with the current approach to immigration which has been described, not by universities but by the Evening Standard, as "economically illiterate". 

So please rest assured that the vice-chancellors and staff of modern universities do travel the world to promote UK higher education and encourage talented and entrepreneurial students to study in the UK. We believe that there are enormous benefits not only to universities but also to our students of studying together and, as a result, modern universities are also major contributors to the UK’s exports, soft power and strategic interests overseas. 

If we‘re honest, we thought that it was a bit unkind to describe universities as acting like "spoiled children". Actually, we think that it was pretty standard commercial behaviour to question the quality and use of data behind pilots which have been used to justify differentiated visa regimes that give some universities advantage over others in a global HE market. Like us, you’ll be aware that the behaviour of spoiled children is often attributed to over-indulgent parents.

Just for the record, universities and the businesses throughout the UK certainly don’t feel overindulged by the changes made to the visa system in recent years. 

Even if you’re not convinced, the publication of the Conservative manifesto suggests that we should continue to talk. 

Yours as ever, 

Pam Tatlow

Pam Tatlow has been chief executive of MillionPlus since 2007.

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