Minister wants to keep up overseas drive, Paul Hill writes from Labour's conference
The full weight of Downing Street could be put behind a new push to promote British universities to overseas students early next year, according to the Higher Education Minister. At a fringe meeting at this week's Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Bill Rammell said he was "determined" that there would be a "phase two" to Tony Blair's initiative to attract international students, which ran from 1999 to March this year.
The project set the target of attracting 50,000 more overseas students to Britain within five years. In fact, 100,000 more overseas students were now at UK universities, Mr Rammell said.
But he told the joint Universities UK and British Council meeting on Tuesday that there would be no government rethink of increases to visa charges or restrictions to the right of appeal for unsuccessful visa applications.
"I don't apologise for those changes," he said. "Higher education does not exist in isolation from the other concerns of the country, and there are concerns about asylum and immigration."
But Drummond Bone, the president of UUK, noted that the US Government had recently decided to relax visa restrictions it imposed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "The US has done a U-turn just at the time when we are moving in the other direction," Professor Bone said.
The meeting was chaired by Lord Kinnock, president of the British Council, who pointed out that international higher education contributed £11 billion a year to the British economy. Lord Kinnock met Mr Blair earlier this year to ask for a second-stage initiative, arguing for a doubling of the £5 million allocated by the Government to the first initiative.
In an interview with The Times Higher earlier during the conference, Mr Rammell played down the drop in the proportion of state-school students entering research universities.
Figures published last week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that the proportion of young entrants to full-time first-degree courses in 2003 who had attended state schools had fallen to 86.8 per cent from 87.2 per cent the year before.
The proportion of state-school pupils at most Russell Group institutions dipped slightly, but there was a modest overall rise in the proportion of students from lower socioeconomic groups, from 28.4 per cent to 28.6 per cent.
Mr Rammell ruled out action to put more pressure on Russell Group universities to amend their admissions procedures.
He said: "There are three indicators we have looked at - the proportion of young people from poor neighbourhoods, the proportion from the lowest socioeconomic groups and the proportion from state schools. Two of them are moving in the right direction, and one has broadly stalled.
"Over the past five years, the proportion of kids from state schools has risen from 176,000 to 209,000. It is firmly moving in the right direction."
But Mr Rammell hit out at "disgraceful misrepresentation" of statistics in the media over last week's claims that one in four undergraduates quits their course.