Leader: Bring forth the body of evidence

It is outrageous that Whitehall remains reliant on an inaccurate system to measure overseas students' comings and goings

September 13, 2012

London Metropolitan University isn't used to sharing top spots with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

But in our cover feature, Martin McQuillan, dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University, makes a convincing case that the perennially troubled institution is the third most politically important university in the UK, after the Oxbridge duo. Certainly it is the third most written about, having lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years, with the media spotlight highlighting every bump in the pothole-ridden road.

But while its political significance has long resided in the student body it serves (it is often said that London Met has more black students than the whole of the Russell Group put together), the decision by the UK Border Agency to strip it of highly trusted sponsor status has brought matters into sharper relief.

When the news broke, a hashtag popped up on Twitter: "#weareallLondonMet", reflecting an "I am Spartacus" feeling of solidarity in opposition to the UKBA.

Universities that have already suffered the state's withdrawal of direct teaching funding are realising that the flow of domestic students - particularly those with top A-level grades who have been freed from the numbers cap - may not be as reliable as they thought. There are also fears for the research budget in the next spending review. In this context, institutions simply cannot afford to lose overseas income.

One striking factor about the polarised debate on students and migration is that the entrenched positions taken are often based on shaky ground. As Martin Ruhs, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, has put it: "There are many disagreements about migration in the UK, but one thing that unites everyone is that for many years there have been serious problems with the evidence base."

The UKBA is keen on accuracy. Its inspectors understandably want every "i" to be dotted and "t" to be crossed in the university records they audit. Yet the government has for too long used data from the International Passenger Survey to measure net migration: a system reliant on interviews with a sample of travellers that was not conceived to compile migration statistics.

Successive parliamentary committees have found it unfit for purpose, with much resting on the move to the delayed e-Borders system, which should more accurately account for students' comings and goings.

Last week the Public Accounts Committee published a damning analysis of the state of the Tier 4 visa system, concluding that it was overly complex and contradictory. The problems were picked over in hearings this summer, including issues of the migration count and the paucity of the evidence base.

"Why would you call a student a migrant?" asked Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, of UKBA officials. "It defies all logic."

Fiona Mactaggart, MP for Slough, asked: what percentage of students return to their country of origin or go to another country after graduating? Dame Helen Ghosh, at that time permanent secretary for the Home Office, replied: "It is hard to say until you have the kind of measurement that we will get through e-Borders." For a government that has insisted that it is interested in evidence-based policy, this is a pretty poor show.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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