Leader: Heat turned up on the melting pot

February 11, 2005

Just as immigration threatens to become one of the dominant themes of the general election, echoes are becoming apparent in the growing debate on the recruitment of overseas students. The same demand for ministers to set a limit on the number of immigrants is beginning to face universities and higher education planners. Students are even being dragged into the wider controversy on economic migrants.

The arguments are every bit as confused in the higher education sub-debate as they are in the more highly charged political exchanges. Ministers call for increased recruitment and then place obstacles in institutions' way by doubling visa charges; universities plan big rises in overseas student numbers without spelling out the consequences for UK and European Union enrolment. Politicians dive in, as the Liberal Democrats did this week, making irrelevant connections with top-up fees.

Universities are partly to blame for failing to make the case for becoming more international. Overseas students used to be seen as beneficial for the cultural diversity they brought to academic and social life, as well as for the contribution they would make as graduates on their return home. Today's justifications are all about balance sheets, with vice-chancellors often sounding apologetic about their plans. There is no need to be, as long as they can demonstrate that home students are not being squeezed out.

Universities should be international communities, and students of all types benefit from the income accruing from full-cost fees.

The latest institutional forecasts aggregated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England do not suggest that foreign students are about to displace UK applicants. The 35,000 extra non-EU recruits expected over the next three years represent manageable numbers when spread between 131 institutions. And a 4 per cent rise in numbers of home places may be a realistic estimate of demand during the transition to top-up fees.

A more pertinent question is whether the overseas recruitment targets can be met, and what universities will do if they are not. The funding council has been warning for some time that many institutions are becoming overreliant on income from overseas student fees. This year's blip in enrolments (if that is all it is) bears out those fears - if visa charges can halt growth in 40 per cent of universities, what would be the effect of serious turbulence in currency markets or international relations? If nothing else, universities and colleges should ensure that they recruit from a variety of countries. Not only does this spread the financial risk; it also chimes with those apparently old-fashioned views about cultural diversity.

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