Blob rule turns up the heat

Unscrupulous operators should be unmasked, but using them to tar all the sector causes damage without tackling vital issues

February 13, 2014

There was a telling note of triumph in Theresa May’s response this week to a BBC investigation that exposed flagrant abuse of the student visa system.

A day or two earlier, Mark Harper (who promised “stability” when he was appointed immigration minister) had resigned over his embarrassing but inconsequential mistake in hiring an illegal immigrant as a cleaner.

The scandal exposed by Panorama seemed much more serious for a home secretary who has pinned her reputation – not to mention leadership ambitions – on cutting immigration.

So surely she was mortified by the exposé, which, among other scams, filmed blatant cheating in English language tests?

The way May spoke airily of a sector that was to blame shows how easy it can be for politicians to lump issues, organisations and institutions together

Far from it. When she appeared on the radio to face the music, she said that she was “grateful to Panorama for the work they’ve done”.

And for once this was not Westminster-speak for “I’m furious, but have to say I’m grateful” – she sounded genuinely pleased.

The fuel this scandal provides outweighs the embarrassment, and May wasted no time in setting out the key lessons she was taking. “We’ve been changing policy, changing structures, and we’ve done a lot of work to root out abuse in the student visa system,” she said. But “it doesn’t just need structural change, it needs cultural change, and I’m afraid that over time the education sector has consistently objected to the changes we have made, and it needs to take some responsibility”.

In case we’d missed her point, she repeated it: “As I said earlier, I think the education sector does have to recognise its responsibilities as well…we’ve previously taken action against universities where we’ve seen abuse of the system. The education sector has got to stop complaining about the change and actually put its own house in order.”

A canny politician, May knows that the green shoots in the economy have done little to stem anti-immigration feeling: last month the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 77 per cent of Britons want net migration to be cut. This spells danger not only for scammers, but for responsible providers, too.

May calls it refusing to acknowledge a problem, but universities have never denied or doubted that there is abuse and that student visas are a target.

The concern is that dealing with abuse and the perception of “official” attitudes to legitimate students have become muddled (a survey released by the National Union of Students this week found that of 3,000 international students questioned, more than half thought the UK government was “unwelcoming”). This is already having an impact, as the recent dip in the number of students from India showed.

None of this is to sweep problems under the carpet, and it says something about the state of flux in higher education – and its importance globally – that it has been the focus of the past two editions of the BBC’s flagship investigative programme (last week’s Panorama was on Western attempts to leverage “soft power” by funding a university in North Korea).

But the way in which May spoke airily about an “education sector” that was to blame shows how easy it can be for politicians to lump issues, organisations and institutions together, however inappropriate it may be.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has got lots of mileage out of his war against “The Blob” – has Theresa May been taking lessons?

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (1)

Has anybody been arrested for the fraudulent activities demonstrated in Panorama. ? is the practise widespread or localised? how many cases are we talking?. Politicians will manipulate for their own interests. The sector should be more robust in its own vigilance

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy