Forget the tartan trousers and jewel-encrusted shoes: the most predictable thing about Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference was the lack of any concession on immigration.
As far as higher education is concerned, the home secretary’s focus last week was entirely on the abuse of student visas and her achievement in cutting incoming numbers.
Speaking at a fringe event in Manchester, Paul Uppal, parliamentary private secretary to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, admitted that the campaign to remove students from the net migration count was, for now at least, a lost cause.
Higher education isn’t a significant enough issue at the ballot box to win political backing ahead of crowd-pleasing priorities in other areas
The political reality, evident at all three party conferences, is that higher education isn’t a significant enough issue at the ballot box to win political backing ahead of crowd-pleasing priorities in other areas.
And so damage continues to be done to what others in government (Number 10 included, apparently) regard as one of the UK’s most significant assets on the world stage.
This week we report on an individual case that illustrates the absurdity of the system: an Indian student intending to study at a UK university, who persisted despite the hoop-jumping demanded by the immigration authorities.
Having paid his tuition fees, along with a £300 visa processing fee, and put aside the £7,200 required to cover his living costs, he waited for his visa to be issued.
Unfortunately, fluctuations in the exchange rate, with the rupee falling against the pound, meant that the funds in his bank account fell to £7,180.18 – £19.82 less than he needed.
His application was promptly rejected.
Such incidents can only have a detrimental impact on perceptions of the UK, particularly in India, which is decidedly sensitive when it comes to the treatment of its students (and even more so when mistreatment is dished out by its former colonial masters).
And as we report this week, the dominance that the UK and a few others once had over the delivery of high-quality higher education in English can no longer be relied upon.
The number of courses taught in English by universities in continental Europe has increased 10-fold to almost 6,500 since 2002, according to new figures, with a 38 per cent rise in the 18 months to June alone. As Daniel Stevens, international students officer at the National Union of Students, points out, this could become a considerable “pull” as we push potential students away.
“The traditional destinations to study in English, such as the US, the UK and Australia, are no longer a given,” Mr Stevens said. “Other countries are realising the benefits of attracting international students and, crucially, their governments are behind them, offering visas that include the chance of working afterwards.”
The case of the Indian student shut out by mindless bureaucracy lays bare the hollowness at the heart of David Cameron’s talk of there being “no cap” on international students.
There may not be a formal cap (has there ever been?), but treatment as shoddy as that meted out to the student will act as a de facto cap if it continues.
With its target to cut net migration unachievable without a significant reduction in student numbers, this may be what the Home Office is banking on.