Brighter and better

We aim to help all our students progress, says Malcolm Gillies

November 1, 2012

Young? Gifted? Foreign? Bugger Orf!” So screamed the cover of last week’s issue of The Economist, in support of its headline “The Tories’ barmiest policy”. Upping the rhetoric from its leader on “xenophobic populism” (“Picking on foreign students”, 8 September), The Economist could but conclude: “Britain is trying to run with its shoelaces tied together.”

The temperature of the immigration debate continues to rise. No one really thought through what reducing numbers of immigrants by two-thirds, from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, would mean in practice. As about half the migrant visas issued each year are for students, it is with students that this drama must substantially be played out.

Just doing the maths, it is clear that there are many - and harder - laps to come in this race. Hundreds of “bogus” colleges have now been closed, but many good colleges have also been driven out of business, and now it is the universities’ turn. If there was any doubt as to seriousness of intent, or that a sole scapegoat had been found, then the home secretary, Theresa May, dispelled any illusions: “If there is abuse (in the universities) we will root it out,” she was quoted as saying in The Sunday Times on 7 October.

So what is “abuse”? Well, certainly students studying without valid visas, or working illegally, or not meeting course or language entry requirements, or not attending classes, or failing to meet reporting obligations. But are international students abusing the system if they genuinely want, or need, to work while studying? Or fail to gain good grades? Or run out of money? Or even fall in love with someone local and want to live with them?

The heart of the current immigration mess lies in former immigration minister Damian Green’s statement of 13 February about “New student rules to welcome the brightest and best while tackling abuse”.

Clearly the government has two completely different messages running here: 1. Immigration abuse must be stamped out; 2. Britain will welcome “only” the brightest and best international students. Green elaborated: “We have to be more selective about who can come here and how long they can stay.” As many a vice-chancellor has realised in recent months, that selectivity can affect foreign academic staff, too.

By bringing higher education and immigration policy into direct collision, harm is being done to the UK’s reputation abroad as well as to an already indifferent economy at home. Higher education had been one ray of economic hope. Whether this policy confusion is a political win, however, remains to be seen. Opinion polls are currently contradictory on that score; the Labour opposition is largely silent. Isolated parliamentarians of all parties make their occasional stands, all looking nervously to their majorities.

So who should our international students be? Well, people here to study, rather than for work or family reunion. Carolyn Bartlett of the Home Office believes that the “genuineness” of 17 per cent of international applicants to UK universities is suspect (“‘Dedicated point of contact’ for your immigration needs”,, 19 August). From July, UK Border Agency staff have had the power to turn away incoming students whose genuineness they doubt.

But then: Do we have different expectations of international and UK/European Union students? I ask because we clearly don’t expect all our domestic students to be “brightest and best”. Universities try to specify a common entry standard, above all so that they can effectively teach students from many different backgrounds in the one class.

The Daily Mail recently reported on a study by MigrationWatch that “exploded the myth that the non-EU students coming to the UK were the ‘brightest and the best’” (“Exposed, the ‘myth’ of bright foreign students”, Daily Mail, 24 September). In fact, as Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch, has discovered, only 5 per cent of international students are brightest and best! And the reason: because only that percentage of all international students attends a “top 10” university.

The Daily Mail, unfortunately, did not recognise that, by this same criterion, about the same percentage of UK/EU students are also exposed as being not so bright or good. In fact, most students entering our universities know that, but many come out with worthy grades in defiance of their study or social backgrounds; and, of course, some vice versa. So can we still applaud social mobility for all our students?

I am proud of my university’s strategic priority of “enhancing student participation and ensuring fair access”. We explain: “London Metropolitan University is committed to offering educational opportunity, on equitable principles, to a diverse range of national, European Union and international students.”

By equitable principles we mean that all students must demonstrate “prior learning or experience…sufficient to succeed on our courses”. It is not a matter of the “brightest and best” Japanese student, the A-level-equivalent Bulgarian and the “access” student from Islington. A coherent learning community won’t be built in that way.

At this moment, we need to celebrate our international students, most of whom are neither abusers of the immigration system nor claiming to be “brightest and best”. They are genuine students wanting to progress their lives through studying, sometimes working, in a tolerant country whose educational qualifications can be trusted. It is through those studies that they, like our domestic students, might hope to become “brighter and better”.

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