UK overseas student policy: hands up if you know what’s going on

John Morgan looks at signals of Home Office backtracking

November 23, 2016
Mixed signals

The Times reports today that Amber Rudd, the UK home secretary, “is set to back away from plans to allow only those foreign students who are at Britain’s top universities to work in the UK after they graduate”.

And it says that the overseas student visa consultation promised by Rudd for this autumn in her speech at the Conservative Party conference will now not be published until the new year.

I find the Times report a little confusing. The article says that in her conference speech Rudd “suggested that only the ‘best universities’ would be allowed to offer students the chance to stay on and work in Britain, as well as those with the best records of ensuring that their graduates didn’t overstay their visas”.

There have indeed been suggestions that the Home Office is considering plans to bring back post-study work visas for students at Russell Group universities (apparently equated with “the best” by the Home Office).

But Rudd’s conference speech went well beyond post-study work visas. She said in her speech that the government would “look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution”.

She talked about rights to work of overseas students’ family members and about English language requirements for entry. She went on to say that “our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent…while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses”. Clearly, this was about more than post-study work – it was about far-reaching changes to the “student immigration system”.

It seems safe to assume that the Times story comes from a briefing by someone in the Home Office. So is the Home Office now signalling that any changes will not include general changes to the “student immigration system”, but will be confined to post-study work?

Surely the point of the changes that Rudd talked about in her speech was to significantly reduce overseas student numbers to help meet the government’s goal of reducing net migration. Is such a plan still under consideration?

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, also signalled a possible shift in the Home Office’s approach during the debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill on Monday.

Labour and Scottish National Party MPs questioned the minister on the fear – widespread among universities – that the teaching excellence framework would be used by the Home Office to make the “quality” judgements mentioned by Rudd, determining in some way their access to sponsorship of overseas students.

Johnson urged Labour MPs to “calm down and consider the home secretary’s party conference speech…No decisions have been made on tailoring or differentiating non-EU student migration rules on the basis of the quality of the higher education institution, or on how that might be achieved.”

Johnson added: “High-quality institutions are compliant institutions. We want compliance to be a strong feature of our system. It is important that the sector should do all it can to be compliant with Home Office regulations.”

This seems to suggest that universities’ visa refusal rates could be the key measure of their “quality” for Home Office purposes, rather than the TEF. Perhaps Johnson has been fighting back against the Home Office’s original plans and that fight is ongoing.

In the eyes of Prime Minister Theresa May, Rudd’s apparent change of tack may look like a wobble in the face of opposition from universities.

May’s antipathy towards the “university lobbyists”, as she once described them, is well known, as is her determination to rectify her failure as home secretary to meet the Conservative pledge of reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands”.

Income from non-EU student fees is £4 billion for UK universities, or 12.2 per cent of their total income. It accounts for more than 25 per cent of total income for nine UK universities.

Sounds like they will just have to wait some more until the future of all this is resolved in Whitehall debates around the government’s net migration target/commitment/aspiration/fiasco.

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