Jo Johnson has recognised that there is a “burning need” to provide clarity on fees and funding for European Union students following the Brexit vote.
The universities and science minister, speaking at the Universities UK annual conference at Nottingham Trent University today, also warned that there were challenges ahead on the question of overseas students. Sources in Prime Minister Theresa May’s government have signalled an intention to further toughen the regime for overseas students coming to the UK, as part of the drive to reduce net migration.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, the UUK president whose speech preceded Mr Johnson’s, urged the government to provide guarantees that EU students entering courses in autumn 2017 would retain the same access to loans, and be charged the same fee levels, as UK students.
She warned that the UK risked a “sudden decline” in EU students otherwise.
In his speech Mr Johnson acknowledged that the sector had made its views clear "over the uncertain position for EU students looking to commence their studies in autumn 2017 and their entitlement to loans and related home fee status” as well as over the need for clarity on the future status of EU national staff.
However, he warned that “many of these issues are inevitably closely linked to the wider process of exiting the EU and the sequencing of these matters is important to get right".
“The prime minister has been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living here,” Mr Johnson said. “And the only circumstances that she envisages that it wouldn’t be possible to do that would be if British citizens’ rights in European member states were not protected in turn.”
On Brexit more broadly, he said the government would “of course seek to secure the best possible deal for universities so we can continue to form productive collaborations across Europe”.
And on government guarantees already made around backing for EU-funded research projects post-Brexit, he said that “further details will be forthcoming at the Autumn Statement”.
Mr Johnson also said that “I don’t want to shy away from some of the difficult challenges we will collectively need to address. One such challenge is the issue of migration.”
Government aims include “ensuring that the immigration system reduces overstaying”, he added.
As home secretary, Ms May criticised universities on this issue, saying that too many overseas students remained in the UK after their study visas had expired.
But universities argue that figures from the International Passenger Survey, cited by the Home Office, far overstate the numbers of overseas students remaining in the UK.
Cardiff University vice-chancellor Colin Riordan asked Mr Johnson if there was “any hint” of when the EU student 2017 entry issue would be resolved and “how much credence” he gave to the IPS figures.
“Thanks, Colin, for putting your finger on the most delicate of areas immediately,” replied Mr Johnson.
On the EU students question, he said: “We know this is a burning, burning need to provide this clarity. All I can say is I’m working as fast as I can with colleagues in the Treasury, Number 10 and elsewhere to give you those further assurances that you’re seeking.”
On the IPS and student overstayers, he said: “It’s true we do need a stronger evidence base around this question so universities can feel comfortable there is a solid policy basis for the measures being taken to address this question.”
Mr Johnson added that “as and when exit check data produced by the Home Office becomes available that will be an interesting source of additional data to enable us to identify the scale of any problem”.