Doors open as others swing shut

Policies on immigration often conflict with sector ambitions regarding overseas students and signal a turbulent spell ahead

November 13, 2014

Which country sent the most students to the UK each year between 1996 and 2001?

No, it wasn’t China or India – their rise has been a noughties phenomenon. A clue is to be found, pleasingly, in the opening lines of Pulp’s Britpop classic Common People: “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge/she studied sculpture at St Martin’s College…”

That Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics are such an accurate portrayal of the international student scene of the time comes as something of a surprise in 2014. Greece may have topped the charts in 2001, sending 26,000 students to the UK, but it has long since been toppled by China, which sent 80,000 in 2012.

Much else has also changed – India, now the second largest “sender”, wasn’t even in the top 10 in 2001, and the overall volume of students has almost doubled. Universities that were sampling international students are now pumping them directly into their bloodstream.

It was striking that universities filled only 15,000 of the 30,000 additional places made available this year

But domestic politics suggest that we are entering a particularly fraught period on this front.

There’s the pledge to reduce net migration, launched with a “no ifs, no buts” guarantee from David Cameron that was this week downgraded to a mere “comment” by the home secretary.

There’s the decline in students coming from India, which has prompted yet another envoy (Greg Clark, the universities minister, has been in India this week repeating the mantra that there is no cap on international student numbers – something of a red herring since there never has been a cap).

And back in Westminster all the talk is about how we might restrict free movement within Europe, as part of Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s contract with the European Union. Thinking purely of student markets, it might seem that the attempts to fall out with (or should that be out of?) Europe are less crucial than relations with India, since EU students pay only domestic fees.

But, as we report this week, the importance of Europe as a recruiting ground is growing.

A demographic downturn at home means there are fewer 18-year-olds to go around, and the decision to scrap the student numbers cap has ramped up competition. It was striking that universities filled only 15,000 of the 30,000 additional student places made available this year.

There are, however, obvious perils on this course – the prevailing political weather is one and the fact that EU students are less likely to repay their loans is another.

There’s also a point made by the Higher Education Policy Institute earlier this year that by increasing the incentives to recruit EU students, the government’s policy of scrapping student number controls directly contradicts its policy to reduce immigration.

It looks like yet another coalition contradiction, but viewed another way both policies are in keeping with the wider political picture: both are intended to woo Pulp’s “common people” at the ballot box next May, the first by expanding opportunity for those “hard-working Britons”, the second by closing the door on opportunity for others from overseas.

And anyway, they’re both Tory policies, coming directly from George Osborne and Theresa May – so if they do cause a policy pickle it’s no good blaming the Lib Dems.

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