Sajid Javid’s first priority after taking up his new post as the UK’s home secretary is to try to address the Windrush scandal. Alongside that is the job of trying to form a post-Brexit immigration policy. Some way down the priority list after those and any of the unforeseen crises that tend to arise in the Home Office, the former business secretary will have major decisions to make on the country’s future regime for overseas students.
His predecessor, Amber Rudd – who resigned after she “inadvertently misled” MPs on Home Office targets for removing supposedly illegal immigrants as she battled to contain the Windrush scandal – commissioned in August 2017 an independent Migration Advisory Committee review of the economic and social impact of overseas students in the UK. That review, scheduled to report in September, was viewed as her attempt to liberalise the student visa regime left in place by Theresa May, the former home secretary and now prime minister.
Mr Javid, who becomes the first person from an ethnic minority background to hold one of Britain’s great offices of state, showed little engagement with higher education in his time as business secretary. But the key legacy he did leave the sector is not a happy one.
Many see the decision to scrap student maintenance grants in England and switch them to loans as originating in his eagerness to offer up deep cuts in the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget ahead of the July 2015 budget. George Osborne, who was the chancellor at the time, was often described as Mr Javid’s “mentor”.
Now, noises from government suggest that maintenance grants will return – the idea is on the table in the ongoing review of post-18 education – and, externally, organisations ranging from the National Union of Students to the Institute for Fiscal Studies back that. When it comes to higher education, Mr Javid’s keen support for Mr Osborne’s austerity looks like a short-term measure that caused the government – and students – more problems than it solved.
As business secretary, Mr Javid was not much more engaged on the issue of international students. His most notable public contribution to that debate came when he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in July 2015 and he was pressed on whether he wanted to see a reversal of the government’s decision to abolish post-study work visas.
Asked if he would want overseas students to stay on, Mr Javid answered: “no”. He added that the student visa system should be “focused on people who want to study and then, once they’ve had their studies and completed that, they leave”.
Whether Mr Javid ends up better briefed by the time that the MAC reports depends on whether the Home Office remains a hostile environment for the idea of making the UK more welcoming to international students. When Ms Rudd announced the MAC review, senior university sector figures thought that it could lead to policy changes including the return of a post-study work visa (particularly important in any attempt to regain lost Indian student numbers), and the removal of students from the net migration target.
Nick Hillman, the Higher Education Policy Institute director, who was on the front line in battles over international student policy between BIS and the Home Office in his time as special adviser to former universities minister Lord Willetts, said: “If the MAC comes out in favour of international students, as it must do if it follows the evidence, it will be hard to ignore. Moreover, international students are one of those groups, like the Windrush generation, that are supported even by those parts of society that are more sceptical about the benefits of immigration.
“So, if he [Mr Javid] wants to act in line with the evidence and public opinion and if he wants to show the Home Office does have a human side, he will roll out the red carpet for international students the second the MAC reports, if not before.”
Others point out that Mr Javid would have to decide if he wants a fight with Ms May (assuming that she remains wedded to former positions on overseas students) and that he could decide to sit on the MAC report.
However it pans out, the man who as business secretary showed little engagement with the higher education side of his responsibilities will (assuming he remains in post long enough) be a home secretary with big calls to make on international students – calls that could have a profound impact on the financial future of British universities.