Email raises questions over autonomy of foreign students review

Senior civil servant said Migration Advisory Committee report ‘looks good’ weeks prior to publication of document that backed Theresa May’s stance

November 29, 2018
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A senior Home Office civil servant said that an independent report on international students in the UK “looks good” weeks before it was published with conclusions which backed the department on key immigration issues.

The email correspondence, obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act, “sadly suggests there may be no such thing as an independent Home Office review”, said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The Migration Advisory Committee, made up of six academic economists plus a civil servant in an ex officio capacity, is described by the Home Office as an independent body.

Its report on international students was commissioned by Amber Rudd in her time as home secretary and was seen by many as an attempt to liberalise the visa regime for non-European Union students. But she was forced to step down in April and was replaced by Sajid Javid.

When the MAC report was published on 11 September, it dashed sector expectations by rejecting calls to reintroduce post-study work visas and to remove students from the net migration target – a stance in line with that of the prime minister, Theresa May, and the Home Office.

THE asked the Home Office to release all correspondence sent by senior civil servants or ministers to Alan Manning, the London School of Economics professor who chairs the MAC.

Jennifer Bradley, a senior Home Office civil servant who is head of the MAC secretariat, emailed Professor Manning on 22 August and said of the international students report: “QA [presumably quality assurance] is nearly finished and the report looks good – all comments incorporated from members and just a couple of questions for you to clear up.”

Ms Bradley also said: “I’m continuing to have various meetings with officials from HMT [the Treasury], No 10 etc keen to know the report recommendations which I’m speaking to them at a high level about.”

Another MAC report, on post-Brexit immigration rules for nationals of European Economic Area countries, was also being prepared at the time, and it is not clear from the email – which is heavily redacted – whether this second statement refers to this or the international students paper.

The Home Office’s FoI response said that “whilst Jennifer Bradley is a Home Office [senior civil servant], the emails were sent in her capacity as head of the Migration Advisory Committee secretariat”.

THE previously reported that the MAC relied on graduate earnings data for non-EU master’s students to justify rejecting the reintroduction of post-study work visas, seeming to ignore the undergraduate data cited by the report, which show non-EU graduates gaining higher earnings than UK graduates.

Mr Hillman, an adviser to Lord Willetts during his tenure as universities minister, said that “from memory” of that time in government, “we saw the [independent] Browne report [on university funding and student finance] the weekend before it was published and when it was too late to make any amendments even if we had wanted to. That is how such processes should work.”

He added: “We…all need to become smarter at asking, ‘When is an independent review not an independent review?’ It is like the start of a bad joke, which is of course exactly what the MAC report was.” THE has seen no evidence of amendments being made to the MAC report at the request of government officials or politicians.

A spokesman for the MAC said: “The committee is supported by a secretariat comprised of Home Office civil servants, who are seconded to the MAC and are operationally independent from the department. This system is commonly used throughout government.

“The Freedom of Information response contains no communication between Home Office civil servants who report to ministers and the chair of the MAC.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Query over autonomy of foreign students review

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