Higher education institutions’ complaints about the UK’s immigration regime risk “deterring students” from coming to the country by “endlessly saying that we’re closed for business”, the universities minister has warned.
Jo Johnson told Times Higher Education that providers should instead focus on “selling the positive message” that the UK was the best place in the world to study.
He was speaking after the UK’s Higher Education and Research Act, regarded as the most significant sector legislation for 25 years, was passed by Parliament and received Royal Assent.
Mr Johnson was forced to make a number of last-minute concessions to Labour and critics in the House of Lords – increasing scrutiny of new providers before they can gain degree-awarding powers and delaying the introduction of tuition fees differentiated by teaching excellence framework results until 2020 – in a race to push through the bill ahead of the snap general election on 8 June.
However, the government rejected an amendment to the legislation, inserted in the Lords, that would have taken students out of the target to reduce net migration.
Universities had lobbied in favour of the amendment, fearing that the current situation creates an incentive for the government to drive down non-European Union student numbers.
But Mr Johnson argued that vice-chancellors should concentrate their attentions elsewhere.
“I think the sector should focus on selling the positive message, which is that…there is no better country in the world in which to study than the UK,” he said.
Otherwise, Mr Johnson warned, “we risk creating exactly the situation which we’re trying to avoid, which is deterring students from coming to study here – by endlessly saying that we’re closed for business.
“We’re not. We’re open for business, and there’s no limit on the number who can come and study here.”
Mr Johnson said that the new act would allow English universities to “continue to develop and evolve and innovate for the future” and was necessitated by the switch to a tuition fees-based funding system since the last major sector legislation in 1992.
The new market-style regulator created for England, the Office for Students, will put “the student interest and the interests of the taxpayer underwriting the system and the interests of employers getting graduates at the other end of it really at the heart of everything that it does”, Mr Johnson said.
“In that sense, we’re moving towards a system in which we have a classic regulated market.”
But what about criticisms such as those made by Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times – where Mr Johnson was once a colleague of his – who argues that the legislation tries to “force” higher education into becoming a market when it can never be such?
“I think it’s recognised that the system has important features of a market,” replied the minister.
Critics were failing to recognise that “something fundamental has changed” since tuition fees replaced direct public funding as the primary source of higher education funding and that “students are effectively taking on the liabilities as consumers”, he argued.
“I think Martin’s analysis…wishfully harks back to a world that doesn’t exist any more,” he added.
Asked why there was a need to introduce new providers, a key aim of the act, Mr Johnson said: “I think it is recognised that we haven’t seen sufficient innovation in the provision of higher education.”
He added that the consequences of this “can be seen in the increasing dominance of certain models, including the classic three-year residential model” and in “difficulties in reaching groups that are under-represented in higher education”.
On the TEF, Mr Johnson said the act “does enable us, critically, to make the link between the quality of teaching as assessed through the teaching excellence framework and the funding of teaching”.
Is the logical conclusion that the TEF will create a system in which some universities charge significantly higher fees than others?
“There is no intention to allow anything other than what we’ve said we will allow: which is institutions that can demonstrate they are offering high-quality teaching and outcomes from it will be allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation,” said Mr Johnson.
Declaring that the “priority is implementation now”, he said that it was time “for the brilliant people we have coming in to run these organisations – Sir Michael Barber at the OfS as its chair, Sir John Kingman and Sir Mark Walport over at UKRI [UK Research and Innovation]” to carry on with the challenge “of getting these organisations up and running to do the job we need them to do”.