The universities minister has called for the UK to adopt a “more open approach to international students”, saying that a key review on their impact is a chance to change a current position that leaves him “concerned”.
Sam Gyimah, who made the comments to journalists following his speech to the Universities UK annual conference, also said that the government’s review of post-18 education and funding would take into account any “material” information from key Office for National Statistics work on student loans and this “will impact on the timetable”.
The minister’s speech to the conference, held at Sheffield Hallam University, was notable for resetting his tone on universities. Mr Gyimah, who has frequently criticised universities on their record on free speech in particular, said that he wanted to set out “what I hope I have made obvious in the past nine months [since his appointment]: I love our universities”.
Speaking to journalists, the minister discussed the Migration Advisory Committee report on the impact of international students in the UK, expected to be published this month.
Any shift towards a more open stance on international students would be a major move away from the regime imposed by Theresa May as home secretary, in which the student visa regime has been tightened as part of the overall drive to reduce net migration.
“If we want a university system that is global, that is competitive, then we should be looking to a more open approach to international students,” he said.
Mr Gyimah added: “I am concerned by our current international position. But there is an opportunity for us, using evidence coming from the MAC report, but also looking at what our ambition is as a country and making sure that our policy action matches that ambition.”
In his speech, the minister said that he welcomed the “fresh thinking” in UUK’s proposal for the reintroduction of a two-year post-study work visa.
On the post-18 education review, the government said when launching it that the panel would deliver an interim report in the autumn, followed by a government response in early 2019. But there is speculation that the timetable may slip, given that the Office for National Statistics is conducting key work – expected to be published by the end of the year – on the accounting treatment of student loans; work that may result in loans’ impact on the deficit being revised upwards.
Asked by Times Higher Education whether there could be a delay and whether the review risked being a political fix, Mr Gyimah said: “The most important thing the Augar review can do is come up with recommendations for not just higher education, but further education, and the long-term sustainability and functioning of both sectors…The ONS [work] plays into that and that will impact on the timetable, yes. But the most important thing is to actually come up with a sustainable answer.”
The government had “not committed to a time so I don’t know what this delay is”, he added.
When it was pointed out that there was a timetable for publication in autumn followed by government response in early 2019, Mr Gyimah said: “That’s the ambition. But if the ONS comes out with a material bit of information that impacts the report, the report will have to express it otherwise the report will not be useful.”
Signalling a general shift in his tone in the speech, Mr Gyimah said: “Given the state of debate on higher education in parts of the UK media, what I am about to say next may be controversial. But I will say it anyway: going to university is worth it.”
He also said it was “right that we make a full-throated defence of the value of university education as a whole”.
While he warned against universities becoming “ideological echo chambers”, Mr Gyimah also signalled disagreement with a recent Mail on Sunday article by Toby Young, saying that universities are not “left-wing madrassas”, as “one controversialist chose to describe them”.
Mr Gyimah set out a vision for universities to be “local as well as global” and be central to regional economic growth.
“The role of universities as economic hubs, as magnets for investment and sources of support for businesses, will be vital if we want broadly based economic growth,” he said. The minister told journalists that he was “not just love-bombing” universities in the speech, but making a point about “the future of education in our economy”.