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?