The UK government’s plan to restrict overseas student recruitment for universities deemed to have “lower-quality” courses would contradict the message of the European Union referendum result, according to a thinktank leader.
Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, which looks at issues around identity and integration, addressed vice-chancellors on how universities might respond to the Brexit vote at Universities UK’s annual conference earlier this year.
Since then, Amber Rudd, the UK home secretary, has announced plans to examine changes to the student visa system to “look at what more we can do to support the best universities and those that stick to the rules…while looking at tougher rules for students on lower-quality courses”.
There has been speculation that that could mean the Home Office using the new teaching excellence framework to judge which universities have “lower-quality” courses, or giving Russell Group universities preferential treatment on student visas.
Polling commissioned by British Future after the Brexit vote found that the public were “strongly supportive of students coming to study, because it’s good for the place they come to”, Mr Katwala told Times Higher Education.
The ICM polling for British Future’s report, What next after Brexit? Immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain, published in August, found that 22 per cent of people wanted the number of international students coming to UK universities to be reduced, less than the 24 per cent who would be happy for numbers to increase. A majority, 54 per cent, wanted numbers to stay the same.
Mr Katwala said that the Home Office plans “would be absolutely the opposite of the message we’re all trying to take from the referendum” about some regions of the country and sections of society feeling left behind by globalisation.
He added: “Let’s say you said Russell Group universities could benefit from international students but those lower down perceived hierarchies…won’t. That wouldn’t spread the benefits of openness and globalisation and economic gains; that would shrink them.
“The message of the EU referendum is that if there’s a good thing, it should be spread about more.”
Mr Katwala argued that “accepting and learning and responding to the lesson of the referendum” should mean looking “to challenge an idea that we should have a system that works for the most prestigious and most affluent places, not one that spreads the benefits”.